More than 30 years before “The Fellowship of the Ring” was published, J.R.R. Tolkien began another fictional exercise. It didn’t involve hobbits or Middle-earth. Beginning in 1920, the author took on the role of Father Christmas, writing annual yuletide missives to his children, John, Michael, Christopher and Priscilla.

Tolkien continued this practice for more than 20 years, and in 1976, a compilation of his correspondence “J.R.R. Tolkien’s Letters from Father Christmas” was made available to the public. Readers unfamiliar with the book will be captivated by a new, centenary edition, with Father Christmas’s handwritten letters and pictures beautifully reproduced, and his ornate — if sometimes difficult to decipher — penmanship helpfully transcribed to aid in them reading aloud (which I would recommend).

Some of the letters are quite brief — Father Christmas is extremely busy, as he constantly reminds the children — but some are thrilling stories in their own right. Nearly all the letters include messages and asides from Father Christmas’s friend and helper, the Great Polar Bear, whose spelling is atrocious but whose heart and paws are in the right place. Polar Bear tends to make a mess of things — setting off 20,000 silver sparklers, falling asleep in the bathtub with the water running — but he bravely battles goblins in their periodic attacks upon the North Pole, aided by his nephews Paksu and Valkotukka.

Of course, it’s not all exciting skirmishes with the goblins: There are references to special requests for toys and to letters received from the children (how one wishes some of these might have been included!). As the years pass, Father Christmas takes note of the darkening world beyond the North Pole, as when he writes to 10-year-old Priscilla in 1939: “I am very busy and things are very difficult this year owing to this horrible war. Many of my messengers have never come back . . . Polar Bear has hardly done anything to help.” (“ROT!” Polar Bear retorts.)

Tolkien aficionados will relish glimpses of the author’s hallmarks — not just those goblins but Tolkien’s love of what W.H. Auden termed “northernness”; an elf scribe named Ilbereth; invented languages and alphabets. Still, the greatest pleasure here comes from sharing in Tolkien’s love for and delight in his family at Christmastime. Parents may sigh with recognition as they read Father Christmas’s final letter, to Priscilla, at 14.

“After this I shall have to say “goodbye”, more or less: I mean, I shall not forget you. We always keep the old numbers of our old friends, and their letters, and later on we hope to come back when they are grown up and have houses of their own and children.”

Over the years, “Letters from Father Christmas” has inspired many families to create their own holiday storytelling and letter-writing traditions: Perhaps yours might be next?

Elizabeth Hand‘s most recent novel is “The Book of Lamps and Banners.”

Letters from Father Christmas, Centenary Edition

By J.R.R. Tolkien. Edited by Baillie Tolkien

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 208 pp $28