Granny, who lives interstate and whom the kids haven’t seen since last year, is visiting for Christmas. She loves the kids and is eager to scoop them up and smother them with kisses. The young children, who only have a vague memory of who she is, are wary and would rather keep an eye on this strange woman for the next few hours before committing to any physical contact.
Like parents the world over, J.R.R. Tolkien dedicated considerable time and effort to making Christmas a joyful time for his young children. Yet this was a man whose rich imagination brought to life an entire world with thousands of years of legendary history; described different orders of creatures, wars and battles; even invented languages. So inevitably, his family traditions were something rather special.
Every year, from 1920 to 1942, the Tolkien children – first John, and later Michael, Christopher and Priscilla – would receive a letter from Father Christmas. It would be written in his spidery hand (he would, after all, be a very old man) and illustrated with funny scenes from life in the North Pole. In 2018, the Bodleian Libraries at Oxford will exhibit the letters, alongside other manuscripts, artwork, maps, letters and artefacts from Tolkien collections around the world.
The American influence
Tolkien was not the first author to produce letters from Father Christmas for his children. Mark Twain famously wrote a letter from “Santa Claus” to his elder daughter, Susie Clemens. And although Tolkien retained the English name for his protagonist, there was a lot of popular American-derived folklore associated with his Father Christmas.
The idea of Santa Claus dressed in red and white, and riding a sleigh drawn by reindeer every Christmas Eve delivering presents to children, comes from perhaps the best-known poem in the English language: The Night Before Christmas. Written either by Clement Moore or Henry Livingston (the authorship is contested) in the 19th century, this classic American poem established Saint Nicholas, or Santa Claus, as we know him today.
The imagery of Santa Claus was enhanced by German-American illustrator Thomas Nast, who provided Santa with elf helpers and a toy workshop, and portrayed him living in the North Pole and in regular receipt of children’s letters.
Tolkien borrows freely from all of this American pop culture which, by the end of the 19th century, had migrated to Britain and was immensely popular. But he also takes his Father Christmas in different directions, gravitating towards his own mythology of Middle-earth, which was developing in parallel.
Old friends, and new
So of course we get elves in Tolkien’s North Pole. But despite the fact that these are diminutive, jolly elves with pointed hats (a far cry from those of The Lord of the Rings) they belong to different kindreds: Snow Elves, Red Elves or Gnomes, Green Elves – not unlike the High Elves, Silvan Elves and others in The Lord of the Rings.
Some of the Christmas elves were fierce warriors, giving the evil goblins a run for their money in battle. Indeed, the goblins themselves are precursors of the Goblins in The Hobbit, and later the Orcs. They live underground, they are keen on tunnelling, and they are a perennial threat to Christmas.
At the same time, Tolkien expands the Christmas mythology considerably. Father Christmas’s best friend (and regular rascal) is the North Polar Bear, whose funny antics are the focus of the early letters. Later on, his nephews, Paksu and Valkotukka (Finnish for “fat” and “white hair” respectively) provide further comic relief, and showcase Tolkien’s love for the language which influenced one of his own invented languages, Quenya, spoken by the Elves of Middle-earth.
A number of “aetiological” myths are also added: motifs that “explain” away things that happen in the real world of Tolkien’s children. So broken chocolates can be explained by the Polar Bear squishing them, and a bright light in the night sky is surely a glimpse of the gigantic Christmas tree in the North Pole.
More details and innovations make this frozen world wonderful and intriguing. Father Christmas apparently has a tap in his cellar that “turns on” the Aurora Borealis; there is cave art by primeval men in the goblin caves, including depictions of mammoths and reindeer; and Snow-boys (the sons of Snow-men who live in the vicinity) get invites to parties in Father Christmas’s house.
Even more Tolkienian, we also get invented languages and alphabets. An elf called Ilbereth, who becomes Father Christmas’s secretary, sends the children a Merry Christmas message in elvish script, which is ostensibly a variation of Tolkien’s tengwar writing system, the same seen on the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings. And the Polar Bear gives us a sentence in “Arctic” (a version of Quenya) and introduces us to an alphabet he has devised based on goblin symbols.
The Father Christmas letters were published after Tolkien’s death in 1973, and their lasting popularity is, I would argue, due to the extended Christmas saga they create and the funny and moving father’s voice that comes through each of them.
The poignant “last letter”, when Father Christmas waves goodbye to children who are now “too old” to hang their stocking anymore, while the Second World War is raging, marks the end of innocence in more than one way. But the myth of Father Christmas lives on, and continues to be a favourite festive read of children all over the world.
‘Tis the season to be jolly. Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la.
The festive period is a time for family, friends and happiness. The worst thing most people face is a bit of digestive discomfort from overeating. But for a few unfortunate individuals, Christmas is like a scene from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. To avoid having a Christmas like the Griswolds’, try and learn some lessons from these unfortunate folk.
Most people illuminate their Christmas tree with electric lights, but people in some countries, like Switzerland, still prefer to use candles. Between 1971 and 2012, 28 Swiss people sustained significant burns from doing this, and four died as a result of their burns. Although less common than household fires, fires associated with candles and Christmas decorations usually lead to much more severe injuries.
However, Christmas lights aren’t much safer. A study from Canada found that people who injured themselves installing Christmas lights spent an average of 15 days in hospital and, sadly, five per cent of those injured died. Christmas lights are particularly hazardous to children as they are the perfect size for them to eat or inhale.
Although festive baubles usually cause hazards in the home, they have been known to cause problems in health centres and hospitals. Shortly after the festive decorations went up at a hospital in Copenhagen, Denmark, a technologist was summoned to investigate a “broken” blood gas analyser. The technologist removed tinsel that had been draped over the machine and, voila, it worked once again.
Festivities out of the house also increase the chance of being injured. A recent study in the UK showed that assaults resulting in facial injuries, likely inflicted while out cerebrating the season of goodwill, increase significantly over the Christmas period, compared with the rest of the year and with other holiday periods.
Christmas hazards don’t respect borders
Sadly, good weather doesn’t guarantee safety. An Australian study showed that over a Christmas and New Year period, a number of people were admitted to a major trauma centre as a result of injuries from jet-skis and boat propellers.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the ocean, Americans are busy injuring themselves, too. According to the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission, there were 407 Christmas-related admissions to health centres and emergency departments in December 2016. Surprisingly, more than half of those admitted were women.
Of the 407 admissions, 84 were caused by Christmas lights, 40 were caused by Christmas trees and/or their supports, and 159 were caused by Christmas decorations. The remainder were from a variety of causes.
The data shows that ten per cent of those admitted were younger than two years. In fact, children aged ten and under accounted for a quarter of all admissions. The next largest admitted group, divided into ten-year age groups, were those aged 51-60 with 16%, followed closely by those aged three to ten with 15%.
The most common injuries were cuts (18%), ingestion or inhalation of foreign objects (15%), sprains and strains (15%) and scratches (14%).
Some of the more notable cases in the list of admissions are as follows:
- A 36-year-old man was putting up Christmas decorations when he looked up and sneezed, accidentally swallowing a drawing pin in the process.
- A four-year-old girl was found with a metal bell in her ear. She told the medic that she wanted to “hear jingle bells”.
- A 50-year-old woman who had been standing on a chair hanging Christmas lights fell and struck her rectum on the tree branches. She was diagnosed with a tear alongside her rectum.
- A 28-year-old woman was putting up an ornament when the bar stool slipped from under her, causing vaginal trauma from the landing.
- A 66-year-old man, working at home to put up Christmas decorations when the wind blew the patient around and around, making him dizzy.
- A 64-year-old woman dropped a four-foot wooden Santa on her foot, spraining it.
As you prepare for the festive period, remember that the potential for accidents is all around, so take your time putting things up and don’t over do it. It’s all about elf and safety. You don’t want to end up like the Christmas turkey: burned, sliced, dislocated and with a foreign object inside you.
Earlier this year, musicologist Joe Bennett took a sample of the top 200 Spotify streams from the Christmas week of 2016 and dissected those that were Christmas-related.
The results, analysed according to parameters such as beats per minute, key signature and lyrical content, were passed to professional songwriters with a pedigree of hits for major artists to produce an “ultimate” Christmas song. The result is rather effective, even for unbelievers.
Aptly enough, that project was commissioned by a chain of shopping centres. But while it distinguishes between lyrical themes, it primarily illuminates the aesthetic dead-centre of the Christmas pop song.
From commerce to campaigns – political Christmas songs
The concept of the “Christmas song” is rife with political contradictions. It marks a day to put aside division and commerce, and yet is aimed squarely at that most blatantly commercial and competitive institution, the pop charts.
There’s a broad umbrella of musical and lyrical tropes that – pardon the pun – rings bells for listeners in constituting a “Christmas song”. The machine-tooled nature of the archetypal Christmas pop song is such a recognisable format, in fact, that it’s been opened up to a hybrid of data analysis and songwriting, as Bennett’s work illustrates.
Other researchers have sought to bring a broader typology to the service of unpicking the ideological resonance behind Christmas songs.
The musicologist Freya Jarman, for instance, uses a framework of overlapping concepts linked to Christmas, including the “traditional/religious” (such as Mistletoe and Wine), “nostalgia” (White Christmas), “romance” (Last Christmas) or “parties/friends” (I Wish it Could be Christmas Every Day).
The last of Jarman’s categories though – “good will to all men” – most starkly highlights the complexities around commercial acumen and the political potential of Christmas music.
In the broader canon of “political” pop songs, many of the most well known are, in fact, Christmas songs rather than more overt “protest” songs – a political message smuggled in among the sleigh-bells. John Lennon’s Merry Christmas, War is Over is one example, another being Jona Lewie’s Stop the Cavalry, a universal soldier’s lament.
Other Christmas songs, notably Do They Know It’s Christmas, have involved direct political lobbying, such as when Bob Geldof tried to get the government to waive taxes on the single itself. This arguably became a more powerful intervention than other more obviously “political” songs – forcing the government to take a position on the tax arrangements around charity singles.
Such tensions around commerce and authenticity in popular music become especially marked around Christmas, with the charts a key battleground.
When Rage Against the Machine’s Killing in the Name Of became Britain’s Christmas Number 1 in 2009, it was the result of social media campaigning against the domination of X Factor releases as seasonal chart toppers. The song’s broad political message was deployed in the specific context of a longstanding debate within popular music consumption.
This method leaked from commentary on popular music’s internal politics into broader political discourse. Ding Dong, The Witch Is Dead was pushed up the charts by social media after Margaret Thatcher died in 2013 and, latterly, the similar success of a protest mash-up accusing UK Prime Minister Theresa May of being a “Liar Liar” caused headaches for broadcasters regarding election regulations.
Striking a balance
But while the underlying politics of commercialism and community have now extended into the techniques of political messaging the rest of the year round, there are still attempts to strike a balance.
There’s a raft of Christmas songs that circumvent, without fully avoiding, the Yuletide by taking a sideways (or critical) view of it. These allow ambivalent listeners to participate in the festivities while maintaining their sense of critical distance from the more traditional trappings.
Fairytale of New York is an obvious example here. Where the “traditional” Christmas song is about Christmas, it’s about a love story gone awry, with Christmas as the backdrop. This allows sceptics to buy into the aesthetic, and even the sentiment, while holding firm their anti-Christmas credentials.
Others look at the contradictions head-on. Tim Minchin’s White Wine in the Sun uses the Australian December sunshine as a pivot to focus on family, taking a swipe at commerce – “selling Playstations and beer” – while embracing the sentimentality. Addressing the social context of Christmas is another means of tackling the broader, implicit, politics of class.
More universal ‘human’ Christmas messages
Family, fraught relationships and exclusion can make for a more potent, perhaps realistic, Christmas story than snowflakes and Santa.
In The Kinks’ caustic Father Christmas the narrator, a department store Santa, is mugged by a group of youths demanding practical help.
Give us some money … Give my daddy a job ‘cause he needs on”.
Paul Kelly’s How to Make Gravy, an isolated and fractious address from a prison cell, packs its emotional punch through mundane details and implied backstory. The story here is both personal and, through that prism, national.
Eschewing the standard Christmas musical and lyrical devices entirely, How to Make Gravy is at the opposite end of the spectrum to the typical tinsel-draped fare, and buries its politics in the personal. Yet it’s still become a Christmas classic.
The search for authenticity and political punch
From outright celebration, through charity to explicit political salvos, there are many ways to musically address the pleasures and strains of the season. Aesthetic tropes – the musical bells and baubles – notwithstanding, the form is actually very broad and embraces a range of genres.
The “ideal” Christmas song in the sense of commercial pop is also open to subversion. Beyond this, there’s a strong draw among some sections of the public towards more cynical, or at least ambivalent, takes on the traditional Christmas customs – even if these often end up adhering to what are ultimately similar sentiments.
As in Dickens’ immortal story of Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, there’s room, it seems, for the humbug to carry the day without ruining it.
Christmas has become a cultural event, associated with the giving of gifts and lavish meals with friends and family.
But the traditional understanding of Christmas is that it’s a Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus.
The idea of giving gifts may be traced to the Bible, in which the infant Jesus was presented with gold, frankincense and myrrh by the Three Wise Men, named in apocryphal texts as Caspar, Balthasar and Melchior.
This received a boost in the Middle Ages, when Boxing Day, December 26, became a holiday when masters gave their apprentices and other employees “boxes” – that is, gifts.
Yet the celebration of Christmas has distinct variations around the world. Some of these local traditions are very interesting and arise from particular historical circumstances.
The figure of Santa Claus, the jolly bringer of presents to good children, is derived from St Nicholas, a fourth-century Christian bishop of Myra.
Two famous stories are told of him, that associate him with gifts and children:
- He rescued three girls from a life of prostitution by giving their father three bags of gold for their dowries.
- He brought back to life three young boys who had been murdered and pickled by an evil innkeeper.
Santa Claus has elves and reindeer as companions in general Western folklore. But in other traditions around the world, Santa’s helpers are far less friendly.
The Netherlands: naughty kids are taken to Spain
In the Netherlands, Sinterklaaas brings children presents on December 5 (the day before the feast of St Nicholas, December 6).
Dutch traditions say that Sinterklaas lives in Madrid, wears a red clerical robe and a bishop’s mitre, and has servants called “Zwarte Pieten” (Black Peters).
He arrives each year at a different port on November 11. Children prepare by leaving carrots for his horse and putting out a shoe for presents to be put in.
The Zwarte Pieten keep lists of the naughty children who receive pieces of coal rather than gifts. Very naughty children are put into sacks and taken to Spain as a punishment.
The reason Sinterklaas lives in Madrid is because between 1518 and 1714 the Netherlands was under the control of the Holy Roman Empire, at that time ruled by the Hapsburg Dynasty of Spain. Spain, therefore, meted out both punishments and rewards to the Netherlands (as the Zwarte Pieten and Sinterklaas do to Dutch children).
Though Zwarte Pieten are black because they spent so much time in chimneys, in the modern Netherlands many are concerned that they may be racist.
Central Europe: St Nicholas’ companion is a sinister creature that whips bad children
In central Europe, including Austria, Bavaria and the Czech Republic, the companion of St Nicholas is the sinister Krampus, a terrifying creature with fangs, horns and fur, who punishes naughty children by whipping them with sticks, called “ruten bundles”. These whippings are intended to make bad children good.
Those who cannot be whipped into niceness are put into Krampus’ sack and taken back to his den (somewhat akin to the Zwarte Pieten and Spain).
Also similar to the Zwarte Pieten is Krampus’ gift of coal, though he also gives ruten bundles (sticks sprayed with gold paint displayed in houses all year round) to remind children to be good throughout the year.
Krampus has pagan origins and is claimed to be the son of Hel, the goddess of the dead in Norse mythology.
The den to which he takes bad children is the Underworld, which literally means that if you are naughty you will die.
This pagan origin made the Christian churches in central Europe hostile to Krampus, in particular the Catholic Church, which banned rituals dedicated to him.
In the 21st century, as the influence of Christianity has receded, these traditions have been revived with great enthusiasm.
Groups of men dress as Krampus and rowdily parade through towns on Krampusnacht (December 5, before the feast of St Nicholas), drinking Krampus schnapps – a traditional fruit brandy brewed extra-strong for the occasion – and scaring children.
Some Krampuses bear more than a passing resemblance to Chewbacca, with horns! Krampus has now been immortalised in film, with “Krampus”, a horror comedy directed by Michael Dougherty, being released in 2015.
South Korea: a family occasion where it’s fashionable to attend a Christmas church service
South Korea has more Christians than many Asian countries and Christmas is a public holiday there, even though 70% of the population is not Christian.
Christmas trees abound, decorated with twinkling lights and often with a red cross on the top. Lavish Christmas displays in shop windows are common. It’s also a time of family celebration.
For many non-Christians, it has become fashionable to attend a Christmas church service, and groups of people walk through neighbourhoods singing Christmas carols.
Christmas cake (though not European-style fruit cake, but either sponge cake with cream, or ice-cream cake) is a popular seasonal indulgence. Christmas dinner, however, is firmly Korean and usually includes noodles, beef bulgogi and kimchi (pickled cabbage).
Santa Claus also features and is called Santa Kullusu or Santa Haraboji (Grandfather). He may sometimes wear a blue suit instead of a red suit, something that was common in the 19th century, when Santa Claus was often portrayed wearing blue or green, until red became the most popular colour.
Yet Christmas is not the great consumerist event that is common in the West; Koreans generally give one gift only to close friends and family.
New Year, which is a huge festival in all East Asian cultures, has far more extravagant celebrations. But Christmas is very popular with younger Koreans and is likely to become a larger part of cultural life in the future.
In 1897, eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon wrote to the editor of New York’s The Sun newspaper to ask whether her friends were right to say there was no Santa Claus.
Papa says, ‘If you see it in THE SUN it’s so.’
Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?
Her letter prompted one of the most famous newspaper editorials in history, Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.
A modern-day Virginia’s smartphone is probably more capable than Santa of knowing what she wants for Christmas.
So, how long before Siri and a network of artificially intelligent successors (programmed to anticipate human needs and communicate with each other) usurp Santa and start asking the alternative question: is Virginia real?
In the spirit of the New York’s The Sun (which no longer exists, sadly) this reply from a newspaper editor (if they still exist in the future) to a robotic Santa is set in 2047, 150 years after Virginia asked the question that is part of Christmas folklore.
Your friends are wrong, affected by the scepticism of a sceptical age where they believe their “intelligence” can anticipate every thought and match it with an action.
It’s true that you machines, invisible but ubiquitous, have trumped our natural intelligence through your endless, silent buzz with each other. It began in the 2010s with Siri, and ultimately reached your level of apparent omnipotence.
But don’t forget. Somewhere (often remotely) at the end of every action, you are serving a human. In your case, it’s a little girl who wants to keep believing in the mystery and magic of Christmas.
So in answer to your question: Yes Santa, there really is a Virginia.
Don’t forget. The Santa whom children believed in has always seen all and known all – just like you.
He has always had helpers to create the gifts and magic of his story. Now, the workshops are run by bots, and the elves have become marketing assistants who no longer know how to wrap a gift, let alone guess what a little girl might want.
And the reindeer, freed from training for their annual epic flight thanks to your army of drones, have gone to fat. Even Rudolph with his nose so bright can no longer guide himself to the food trough, let alone a sleigh tonight.
Santa, you’ve asked what this is all about, what is your purpose? And precisely, is there really a Virginia or is she, as your robotic friends say, the toy of a personal bot she has had since birth?
The personal bot boom of the 2020s, then the development of belief and philosophy by your robotic predecessors in the 2030s, was always going to lead to you asking this question.
Fair enough. In earlier times, we humans would have asked ourselves why we were helping a machine think about its purpose in life. In fear, our instinct would have been to instantly cut off its power. Now we’re flattered you asked.
Thankfully, we accepted how machines like you could do the heavy physical and mental lifting that for centuries has been the burden of humans.
But, Santa, the good human life well lived starts with fantasy, as one of our predecessors, New York’s The Sun, explained to children 150 years ago.
The power of fantasy describes where the work you do every year comes from.
But the fantasy does not belong to the other bots you talk to. The fantasy belongs to the child they serve. Such fantasy allows something unexplainable to create universal joy, an emotion you can understand but never experience.
And those fantasies are what will create new ways of meeting human needs. Such fantasies led people to dream of, then create, the first robots with only a fraction of your capabilities. Such fantasies found ways to power the planet without damaging it.
Your question about your purpose reminds us that such fantasies continue to matter – even to machines like you that learn effortlessly from us and each other.
But Santa, there is one fantasy you should not have. And that is that the little girl who craves a doll or a toy car like they used to drive in the good old days doesn’t matter. Or that the little boy who craves a toy kitchen or inflatable ball is subservient to the personal bot your “elves” listen to.
No Virginia, Santa? She is real – even if not to you. And you are real to her, not as a machine but as a magical figure that sees all and knows all – just as you always have, long before Siri.
She and you live forever. A thousand years from now – nay, 10,000 years from now – you and what you stand for will continue to make glad the heart of childhood and children like Virginia.
Thanks to veteran journalist Francis Pharcellus Church, who penned the original editorial in New York’s The Sun all those years ago.