For more than 20 years, J. R. R. Tolkien lent a hand with Santa’s Christmas letters.

Sometimes the missives would arrive by post, with return addresses like “Cliff House, North Pole,” or “On Sleigh.” Or they’d be left in the house (“By Elf Messenger”). The look was never the same, but the envelopes were always colorful and meticulously lettered, the notes and elaborate drawings inside even more so. This went on for more than 20 years, until the youngest of the four recipients had, well, aged out. But looking now at J. R. R. Tolkien’s Letters from Father Christmas, collected and reproduced in a beautiful centenary edition in time for the holidays, it’s hard to think that anyone could ever outgrow them.

When Tolkien wrote most of the Father Christmas letters to his children—John, Michael, Christopher, and Priscilla—he was an Oxford professor, his fame still ahead of him (the letters spanned 1920–1943, while the Lord of the Rings trilogy would not be published until the 50s). The letters are charming, full of fun, humor, joy, and imagination. Most are signed by Father Christmas, but Tolkien wrote some in the character of an elf assistant, Ilbereth—different handwriting, of course—and others as the recurring foil North Polar Bear, who also enjoys annotating Father Christmas’s letters in the margins (“ROT,” “STUPID JOKE,” “BAD rhyme! That’s beaten you!”). The longer letters give Tolkien space to spin stories and dispense useful information, such as “Goblins are to us very much what rats are to you, only worse because they are very clever.”

Mailbox run! Opening the holiday correspondence.

“My dear John,” the one from 1923 begins, “It is very cold today and my hand is very shaky—I am nineteen hundred and twenty four, no! seven! years old on Christmas Day … I can’t stop the pen wobbling, but I hear that you are getting so good at reading that I expect you will be able to read my letter.” In 1927 he describes his annual route: “My usual way is down through Norway, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, and then back through Germany, Northern France, Belgium, and so into England.” In one dated October (!) 31, 1931, he writes, “Dear Children, Already I have got some letters from you! You are getting busy early. I have not begun to think about Christmas yet …”

The war approaches, and there are whiffs of melancholy: “I am very busy and things are very difficult this year owing to this horrible war. Many of my messengers have never come back” (1939); “This horrible war is reducing all our stocks, and in so many countries children are living far from their homes” (1940); “The number of children who keep up with me seems to be getting smaller” (1941). The last letter arrived in 1943, addressed just to Priscilla, Tolkien’s youngest, and it’s sweet, heartbreaking, yet reassuring. Well, you’ll just have to see for yourselves.

Wintertime in London, where siblings Tess and Max are spending their holiday.

The first thing Tess saw when she walked into the dining room at the Sanborn House, the boutique London hotel she and her brother Max were staying in for the Christmas break, was a boy, a little older than Tess, maybe 14, sitting at a round table covered with a white tablecloth. All the tables were set with elaborate dishes, silver forks and knives, linen napkins, individual teapots, and lovely china teacups.

The boy was having tea by himself. His plate was full, arranged with a combination of tea sandwiches, petits fours, and small scones with whipped cream and raspberries ladled on top. Also in front of him was a full cup of tea, the color of which seemed to indicate he’d added a touch of milk. It was the way Tess liked her tea, too—the English way.

The boy seemed lost in thought. Tess couldn’t tell if he’d taken even one bite of a sandwich or a nibble of a scone. He was just staring straight ahead.

Tess, Max, and their Aunt Evie sat down at the table just in front of him. Tess tried hard not to turn around and look at him. The waiter was on his way over to take their order. Tess had noticed the boy was elegantly dressed, with a black jacket and a white dress shirt, its cuffs visible, and what seemed to be silver cuff links in his sleeves.

“We also have a kids’ menu,” the waiter was saying, starting to wheel over another cart.

Tess jumped in. “We’ve been to England before,” Tess said brightly, “and we’re fine with the grown-up version. Are there petits fours and scones and Devonshire cream?”

“Yes, of course,” he said. “Grown-up it is. We also have a selection of éclairs and chocolates.”

“Really?” said Max. “That’s very exciting, isn’t it, Tess?”

But Tess wasn’t paying any attention to him. She had turned her head and was distracted by the boy at the table behind them. He smiled at her, which made her feel a little shy, but she smiled back. And then he proceeded to—almost as if he was an artist on view—with a magician’s sleight of hand and an architectural eye, pile petits fours onto petits fours, using éclairs as walls, tea biscuits as windows, and tea sandwiches as roof tiles. He added a blueberry for a doorknob and a sprinkling of Devonshire cream on the rooftop, as if it had just recently snowed. It was quite a remarkable creation. And it seemed to Tess to be a show for her.

A warming afternoon tea.

Tess smiled and quietly laughed and turned away so as not to draw attention to him. She didn’t point it out to Aunt Evie or Max. It was kind of like it was their secret, hers and the boy who was sitting at the other table.

“The curried turkey is delicious,” said Aunt Evie. “Really, you should both try it.”

Tess turned back for a second to the boy sitting alone at the table. It was almost as if she’d imagined the house which was made of confections and tea sandwiches. The entire concoction had disappeared and everything was back in its place, the sandwiches laid out on the silver platter and set out on his plate as they had been at first.

The waiter arrived again to see if everything was to their satisfaction.

Tess obediently took a bite of an egg-salad sandwich and declared it “delicious.” Max just nodded, his mouth full of éclair.

After the waiter left, Tess couldn’t help it, she turned back around to catch a peek at the boy at the other table.

Now he seemed to be staring at her, except he wasn’t really. His eyes were looking in her direction and she was looking at him, but it didn’t seem like they were making eye contact. Maybe he was just spaced out. The silver three-layered tray was still on the table with more sandwiches piled high and petits fours, scones, jam, and cream, in addition to the amazing assortment already laid out on his plate, not constructed, just laid out for eating. But he didn’t seem to have eaten any of them. Not a bite.

“Do you see that boy, Max?” Tess asked.

“It’s not nice to stare, Tess,” said Aunt Evie.

“What boy?” said Max.

“That boy sitting over there.” Tess nodded her head back in the direction without looking, as Aunt Evie had admonished for staring.

“What boy?” said Max again.

“That one,” said Tess, and she turned around to look at him. But there wasn’t anyone there.

Just a white tablecloth and four settings, as if no one had been there at all.