In this episode, we take a break from our regularly scheduled programming to spend some holiday fun in Middle-earth. After taking a moment to reflect on The Fellowship of the Ring movie's 20th anniversary (which coincides with the day this episode is released), we dive into all of the festive celebrations that take place throughout Tolkien's writings. From festivals to Christmas letters to holidays dedicated to Hobbits, this episode breaks down all of the ways that the holiday spirit percolated through Tolkien's writings over the years.
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We interrupt this program to bring you a quick announcement that has been twenty years in the making. That’s right, precisely two decades ago, on the exact date that this episode goes live, The Fellowship of the Ring film was released in theaters …and the world was never again the same. I’m serious. Stop laughing out there. The film proved to be an incredible beginning to an unparalleled trilogy of cinematic glory that has continued to enrapture diehard Tolkienites and fairweather fans alike ever since.
The fact that The Fellowship is officially twenty years old boggles my mind. I remember speeding through the last few chapters of the book just in time to see the film after it was released. It was snowy, cold, and Christmas cheer was in the air — more on that in a minute. The fact that it’s already been two decades is kind of …crazy. The fact that we’re going to be getting a 2nd-age Middle-earth show that will premier during the twenty-year anniversaries for the trilogy is also pretty awesome.
The release of Jackson’s trifecta of films was a revolutionary moment for all fans of the fantasy genre. It didn’t just show that Hollywood was ready to make epic adaptations of classic fantasy stories that could hold up to the hype. It also revealed a massive audience that was ready to indulge in the genre over and over again going forward. In my humble opinion, every successful modern fantasy adaptation owes a great big thank you to The Lord of the Rings trilogy for whetting the appetites of the masses and paving the way for the consistent success that has followed.
Thank you, Mr. Jackson, for all of your hard work. We salute you, and we thank you for providing us with a really, really, really long movie trilogy that can keep us entertained for hours on end …even 20 years after it originally aired. We are in your debt.
And now, we return you to your regularly scheduled programming.
Hi. Welcome to the Halfling. I’m your host, Jaron Pak.
When you hear someone talk about The Lord of the Rings — or Middle-earth in general — it can conjure a lot of different images in people’s minds. If you’re like me, you tend to lean toward the more epic side of things. You might think of Smaug sitting on his hoarded gold or the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. For others, the first thought that comes to mind might be a Hobbit hole or Elves peacefully living their immortal lives in Lorien or Rivendell.
One thing that doesn’t typically come to mind, though, is the holidays. Celebrations like Thanksgiving and Christmas, while fun, don’t have a clearly defined place in Middle-earth — at least, not at first glance. But we’re going to change that narrative today. Welcome to the show’s first-ever holiday special, “A very Halfling holiday.” Yes, I cringed as I said that.
Feeble titles aside, there really are a lot of holiday-worthy things of note in Tolkien’s world, and we’re going to spend some time checking at least a handful of these out today. Before we dive into the Middle-earth specifics, though, the first thing I have to cover — especially after that totally out of the blue interruption to the program — is the fact that, over the years, Peter Jackson’s original trilogy of films haven’t just become known as required viewing for fans of the fantasy genre. They’ve also been labeled as cult-classic holiday movies.
I’m not just blowing smoke here to excuse my own desire to settle in and watch the trilogy this holiday season, either. In fact, to be honest, I’ve never really seen the films as required Christmas viewing. But that doesn’t change the fact that millions of others have that opinion. And, come to think of it, I don’t blame them.
I mean, come on. The movies came out during the holidays. They also have that warm, cozy quality that comes from watching the good guys prevail against all odds. Sure, that warmth comes wrapped in a heroic, blood-soaked saga, but the underlying message of hope is one that definitely jives with that Christmas spirit. And then there’s the most obvious fact of all. As people kick back and relax during their time off, what could be better than popping on a twelve-hour trilogy that can serve as the perfect excuse to keep your butt on the couch all. day. long?
So, yeah, when I sat down to write up the script for a holiday special, I knew that the holiday appeal of the films themselves had to be in there. But that’s not the only holiday-related element that we can find. If you dive into Middle-earth itself, there are quite a few celebrations that we can point to. These aren’t labeled “Christmas,” per se. Tolkien tended to avoid using clearly associated terms like holiday names in his writings.
Nevertheless, the need to celebrate special events is one that percolates throughout Tolkien’s world.
For instance, let’s start with an obvious one. New Year’s. We’re used to celebrating New Years right after Christmas — at least in the United States. Other countries celebrate the New Year as well — including in Tolkien’s world. The most famous incident of this comes in The Return of the King when Gondor literally changes its New Year’s date to align with the destruction of the One Ring. Seriously, we witness the momentous event happen right in the book when Gandalf tells Sam, “In Gondor the New Year will always now begin upon the twenty-fifth of March when Sauron fell, and when you were brought out of the fire to the King.”
Of course, Tolkien could never settle for a single nod to the structure that a nice calendar provides. In fact, he includes an entire section on dating and calendars in the end of The Return of the King, too. Here, we learn all sorts of interesting things …okay, I find them interesting, but truth be told, a lot of it is completely overwhelming. If you dig through the cracks, though — particularly in the area about the Shire Reckoning and how Hobbits counted time — we find references to plenty of holidays, like Yuledays, New Year’s, and Midyear’s Day. Get this. It even says that eventually Frodo’s birthday is turned into a holiday. In fact, it’s even buddied up with the Hobbit’s version of a Leap Year, too. After the War of the Ring, whenever a Leap Year comes around in the Shire, the Hobbits just double up the festival that took place on Frodo’s birthday. Cool, huh?
April 6th also becomes a holiday in the Shire, possibly because it’s Sam’s birthday — although even the text isn’t clear on that one. Another holiday that is clearly described, though, is one that takes place in Merry’s home of Buckland — a kind of colony of Hobbits attached to the edge of the Shire proper. I’m sure the Hobbits of Buckland are proud of Frodo, but they choose to venerate their own fearless family member, Meriadoc Brandybuck, in an interesting way.
To make sense of this holiday, we need to back up for a second. In Peter Jackson’s films, when the Hobbits get back to the Shire, all’s well with the world. In the book, though, we get a very different story. When the Hobbits return home, they find the Shire overrun by Saruman’s minions and they have to fight multiple times to clear everyone out. Merry has a really cool horn with him that he received in Rohan, and he blows that horn to gather the Hobbits together to resist the invaders. Later on, in the Appendix to the book, we discover the little tidbit that “the Horn of the Mark was blown at sundown every November 2 and bonfires and feastings followed.” This is connected to a footnote that says November 2nd is the anniversary of the first time Merry blows the horn.
Suffice it to say, in typical Hobbit fashion, the Little People know how to have a good time, and it seems that they built plenty of chances for holiday-themed fun into their calendars. Even when they aren’t official holidays, Hobbits seem to slip into a festive mood at the slightest opportunity. I always liked the part in The Fellowship of the Ring when it starts snowing while they’re heading up the mountain toward the Redhorn Gate — you know, right before they’re forced to turn back and go through the Mines of Moria. While the situation eventually goes really, really badly for the Fellowship, before that happens, Tolkien makes some comments about snowfall in the Shire. Sam wishes that the snow would go off to Hobbiton where it would be more welcome, adding that, “‘I wish this lot would go off to Hobbiton! Folk might welcome it there.’ Except on the high moors of the Northfarthing a heavy fall was rare in the Shire, and was regarded as a pleasant event and a chance for fun.”
I know that isn’t technically a holiday, but it just goes to show how much special events are deeply ingrained in the minds of Hobbits. There’s another celebratory place where we can see this, too. Again, I know this isn’t an official holiday, but the Hobbit appreciation for birthdays has to make it into an account about the various holidays in Middle-earth. After all, there are few holidays that I’ve ever heard of that can match the Hobbit appetite for a special day to eat, drink, and be merry …even if it’s just because someone was born exactly X many years ago.
The other reason I feel justified bringing birthdays into the conversation is because of the near-veneration that Hobbits have for these events. In The Fellowship, Tolkien makes this abundantly clear during Bilbo’s very own 111th birthday speech — you know, the one right before he puts the Ring on and vanishes? — in that little presentation, Bilbo refers to his arrival at Lake-town during The Hobbit, saying, “though the fact that it was my birthday slipped my memory on that occasion. I was only fifty-one then, and birthdays did not seem so important.”
Think about it. We live in a culture where birthdays are some of the most exciting days …when you’re a kid. You get to eat cake, get presents, and all of the attention is on you. Then, you get older, and the excitement of the event starts to wear off a bit. Not so for a Hobbit, though. For a Hobbit, the birthday frenzy only increases with age — to the point where Bilbo brushes off missing a birthday at 51, not because he’s too old to care but because he’s too young.
One of my most favorite elements that this older focus on birthdays brings with it is the present system. While we lowly Humans tend to focus on the “gimme” aspect of birthdays, Hobbits flip the script. In The Fellowship of the Ring, as Bilbo’s fabulous party kicks off, it explains this interesting gift-giving phenomenon, “Hobbits give presents to other people on their own birthdays. Not very expensive ones, as a rule, and not so lavishly as on this occasion; but it was not a bad system. Actually in Hobbiton and Bywater every day in the year was somebody’s birthday, so that every hobbit in those parts had a fair chance of at least one present at least once a week. But they never got tired of them.”
Alright. Enough about birthdays. We’re here to talk about holidays, proper. And I do have one more juicy one to throw out there before we wrap things up. I want to talk about the concept of festivals. We already touched on this a little bit, but I want to break it down a little more thoroughly. If you look for the word “holiday” in Tolkien’s writings, you won’t find much in the way of regularly scheduled yearly events. However, if you switch your term query to “festival,” you’re going to come up with a lot of results. Many of these are tucked into random places, and they often go unnoticed. For instance, remember last time, in the first Shelob episode, when we saw the arachnid monster’s mother, Ungolaint, help destroy the Two Trees? This happens when the Elves and the angelic Valar are at a festival so big that everyone on the continent is invited.
This isn’t their only festival, either. At the very beginning of The Silmarillion, before the Two Trees exist, the Valar rest from their labor of shaping the world — and what do they choose to do while they take a well-earned break? Why, have a feast, of course. There are other harvest festivals scattered throughout the text, too. In Rohan, we also see a huge feast take place to celebrate the passing and burial of King Théoden during the War of the Ring. Like, they literally party in celebration of his life — something that the book refers to as a “funeral feast.” In The Hobbit, we also see references to things like Durin’s Day, which Thorin explains is the first day of the dwarves’ New Year.
I could go on with the references, but I think I’ve made my point. You may not find specific holidays in Middle-earth, like Christmas or Thanksgiving, but Tolkien wove a ton of different special events into his world, all the same.
Now, there is one official, last item I want to touch on before we end — and this one is absolutely holiday-specific. I’m talking about Tolkien’s posthumously published book Letters from Father Christmas. Earlier versions of the book are titled The Father Christmas Letters, and regardless of the edition, this is a fun volume of Tolkienesque nonsense to read through.
The book consists of a series of dramatized letters written by Tolkien himself to his own kids. And we’re not talking something like The Hobbit where everyone talks about how he wrote it for his kids. These are literally letters, penned and illustrated by Tolkien, and coming from the fictitious desk of Mr. Claus himself — or his secretary, Ilbereth. They document all sorts of North Pole nonsense in the form of Santa’s adventures, run-ins with mischievous goblins, and even the bumbling North Polar Bear — who literally falls through Santa’s house while trying to help at one point.
These letters are a lot of fun, and they’re a cool touchpoint between Middle-earth and our world. Now, for the record, they don’t officially happen in Middle-earth. They’re fictitiously grounded in real-world parameters. In other words, they reference our world and events in real life. They’re also a hilarious bit of fun to read around the holidays.
Alright, I hope at this point, you’ve got at least a decent idea of how holidays in Middle-earth work. The main takeaway here is that there are definitely lots of celebratory events to be had — even if they don’t directly correlate with a specific real-world day. From angelic feasting to dwarven New Years to Hobbitish birthdays to Gondorian calendar shuffling, holidays play a significant role throughout all of Tolkien’s writings.
They’re also around the corner for us here in the States, which is why, sadly, I won’t be able to work on the podcast for the next two weeks. Never fear, though. I’ve worked overtime to line up at least one more episode before January kicks off. Next time, we’ll walk through the rest of Shelob’s story. Then I’ll take one quick week off before we hit the ground running in 2022 with Elrond and the founding of Rivendell — both of which are likely to feature heavily in the Amazon show — which also comes out in 2022! Things are looking up for Tolkien fans as we head into the new year.
For now, though, don’t forget to give the show a rating and review, and then put down this podcast and, like any good Halfling would, pay attention to whatever chances for festive fun come across your path. Happy Holidays, everyone. See you on the other side!