Step away from the noise and clutter of the thing that's now called the "holiday shopping season" and step back in time to a winter long ago when the quiet pleasures of company, simple food, and light were all that were required to make Yule-tide a festive occasion. Bilbo is there, supping on bread and honey, nuts and fruit, clotted cream, and other rustic fare, and most of all, resting from his great quest to the Lonely Mountain in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. Someone rather like an angel is at his side in the figure of Gandalf, the Maia, bringing the gift of laughter with him to his host's table. Beorn presides over his guests and his wonderful animals, his bear-man history linking him back to the deeps of Norse legend.
To this day, if you visit Scandinavia at Christmas, you will see straw ornaments hearkening back to the ancient feast of jul, when folk would insulate their homes with straw and nest down in it to eat bread, winter storage apples, and other good things. Tolkien brought this word into his pre-Christian legendarium and it's simply lovely to think of how Yule might have been observed across Middle-earth. Did the Bucklanders ice skate on their frozen ponds? Was there a country dance at Bag End? Did Dwarves get out their harps and drums and sing in their great caverns? Were old stories told by men in the Golden Hall or around the White Tree of Gondor?
We can speculate and suppose, but the one thing we can be sure of is that feasts, gifts, and decorations would have been mostly homemade and handmade, with perhaps a few toys from Dale as a special treat in good years. There was no black Friday, no cyber Monday, and only rare characters like Saruman transfixed by the idea of mass production. Given that winter is likely the best time of the year for observing just how quiet nature can be, with its snowflakes, still trees, slumbering wildlife, and even streams pausing in their merry courses, it can come as a great relief to mark both the season and your family's particular holidays with at least some low-key moments. Tolkien fans will almost certainly find a quiet corner and a good book, as if by our nature, but here are five more ideas for humble pleasures you can create for yourself and others.
5 Suggestions for a God Jul
1. Be like Professor Tolkien - borrow from Scandinavia
Embrace the Danish concept of hygge. All you need to enjoy it is convivial company in a cozy setting. Beorn, Gandalf, Bilbo and the animals are all experiencing hygge in my painting, because they are in a shared mood of safety, warmth and comfort.
Light some candles, make a lovely drink for everyone under your roof, wrap up in warm blankets, tell quiet stories, talk about the wintry things you've seen in nature and ask others what they have seen. Soak yourself in the peace of it.
2. Be like Radagast the Brown - care for animals
Winter is a challenging time for wildlife. Set out feeders for birds and squirrels or simply sprinkle nuts and seeds around your property, on fence tops, or in the crooks of trees. Build a hedgehog house or do all you can to protect precious insects by constructing a bug hotel out of materials in your own garden. If you are lucky enough to have room to grow your own food, plant an unprotected extra winter crop row for wandering deer, rabbits, gophers, groundhogs and other hungry creatures. If you have no garden, be a good steward of little insects that end up in your house; catch them in a jar and gently place them back outside in the outdoor world they are missing. If you have pets, let them know how much you appreciate their companionship by spending extra time playing with them. If you lack contact with animals right now, you can still express care for them by supporting the development of wildlife corridors on roads near you, or donating to no-kill shelters, or a variety of habitat restoration and conservation programs.
3. Be like a hobbit - deck your halls sustainably
It's wonderful to see the growing trend in biodegradable holiday decorating, and nothing you can buy in a shop can rival the beauty that comes from ornamenting a room with trimmings from plants. Learn to make a foraged wreath from clippings of evergreens, dried flowers or seedheads. Every kind of leaf, pod, and branch has a great charm to it, and many plants give off lovely, natural scents. You can even build a small Christmas tree in a large vase out of trimmings from evergreen plants if you have pine, fir, Redwood, or spruce in your garden, or you can ask the owner of a nearby Christmas tree lot if they would give you some of their leftover branches - they are normally glad to do so. When the festive season is over, your bins will not be full of metal and plastic because you can simply return your decor to nature where it will help build up soil.
4. Be like an elf - help and protect others
Emulate the wisdom and help given to the fellowship by Glorfindel, Gildor, Galadriel, Celeborn, Elrond and the other elves in The Lord of the Rings by offering something this season to fellow wanderers in tree-tangled Middle-earth. In every community these days, some of our fellow beings are homeless, hungry, cold, lonely, or overlooked. With volunteer time and donations, you can act on the Last Homely House principle of creating refuge for others in time of great need. I know one couple who bakes nutritious and delicious muffins every week for a program that feeds hungry families. I know another man who sleeps on the streets of a big city one night a year to raise funds for neighbors without homes. Others spend time reading to elders in care homes, sending donations to vital causes, or serving meals at charitable kitchens. Some of the best gifts you give in winter may go to people you've never met, but who will deeply feel the warmth of your generosity.
5. Be like Faramir - face the West
Pagan jul became Christian jul (Christmas), and by Tolkien's own day, it had become a warm and wonderful time to celebrate the great eucatastrophe of the birth of Christ. In Third Age Middle-earth, Faramir's men are still facing West at table to honor the Divine, though they are surrounded by folk who appear to have no acquaintance with Eru.
In our own Age, the commercialization of Christmas can make it hard to become quiet enough to honor the sacred origin of the day. If, like the professor, you are a Christian, face West with awe and humility this Christmas, in gratitude for the Good News. Bask in the glowing quiet of a nativity scene, sing the old songs, pray with love for the world. Honor, too, our fellow travelers of other faith traditions at this season, holding them dear in your heart, and love every neighbor of no faith amid the world of woven trees. Our good intentions towards all are just what is needed for peace to vanquish strife. Every loving act casts the rings of greed, hatred, and exclusion into the fire, making room for protection of all that is good and bright, for self-sacrifice, for mercy, pity and fellowship.
Keeping Christmas Like Tolkien
When Tolkien was a boy, it was common to ask how your neighbors would "keep Christmas", meaning how they would celebrate the occasion. As a grown-up, the professor kept it memorably, with his delightful annual Father Christmas letters to his children, with his reverent attendance of Mass, and doubtless, with all the merriment he was famous for lending to gatherings. Tolkien made his friends laugh. He once attended a function at which he produced a tiny green object he insisted was a leprechaun shoe. He would fall down flights of stairs as a great, noisy joke, arising unharmed. He invented the North Polar Bear, who writes with a shaky hand and bumbles about, but is immensely loveable. He made great legends out of children's toys.
I've just finished reading Holly Ordway's new book, Tolkien's Faith, and came away from it with a new appreciation for just how loving a man John Ronald was. He exemplified faith, hope and charity in countless ways, and I found much inspiration in the simple things he did and said to be of service to others. If we walk the ever-on-and-on road that Tolkien did, we can keep Christmas like a folk who know we are awaiting the return of the King. And whatever road you are walking this winter, I wish you an abundance of peace, natural beauty, a spirit of simplicity, and much warm happiness amidst your loved ones.