One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.
It began in 1945 as a radio talk, Memories of Christmas, for the Welsh Children’s Hour program. He later merged bits from a 1947 piece called Conversation About Christmas and sold it to Harper’s Bazaar in 1950 as A Child’s Memories of Christmas in Wales. In 1952, Caedmon Records asked him to record himself reading it for the B-side of a collection of his poems. The title we have come to know for the piece, A Child’s Christmas in Wales, was from this recording. Thomas had been unable to remember the title used in the Harper’s magazine version, so recalled as best he could. It turned into kind of a big deal, as the recording is seen as seminal in starting the audiobook industry in the USA.
Dylan Thomas in the White Horse Tavern – image from Peter Harrington – The Journal – photo by Bunny Adler
Set in Swansea in the 1920s, Thomas offers a fragmented memory, recalling not just one particular Christmas but his childhood Christmases in general.
One Christmas was so much like the other, in those years around the sea-town corner now, out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve, or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.
It is a mix of his perspective as a child and his finer focus, looking back as an adult.
The particular Christmas that stands out includes images of a neighbor’s house catching fire
The overall timbre is warm and loving. But there are hints as well of darker elements in the world around. Some bred from imagination
the winds through the trees made noises as of old and unpleasant and maybe web footed men wheezing in caves… perhaps it was a ghost… perhaps it was trolls…
Others from observation
We returned home through the poor streets where only a few children fumbled with bare red fingers in the wheel-rutted snow and cat-called after us, their voices fading away, as we trudged uphill…I would scour the swatched town for the news of the little world, and find always a dead bird by the Post Office or by the white deserted swings; perhaps a robin, all but one of his fires out… Some few large men sat in the front parlors, without their collars, Uncles almost certainly, trying their new cigars, holding them out judiciously at arms’ length, returning them to their mouths, coughing, then holding them out again as though waiting for the explosion; and some few small aunts, not wanted in the kitchen, nor anywhere else for that matter, sat on the very edge of their chairs, poised and brittle, afraid to break, like faded cups and saucers.
There is also mention of chasing the English and bears in deep Welsh history, a reference to wars that ended with English subjugation of Wales.
The story is about the sequence of events from one Christmas afternoon, when a neighbor’s calls of “Fire” draw the fire brigade and all breathing neighbors, the narrator and his co-conspirators addressing the possible conflagration with the launching of multiple snowballs. It offers a portrait of youthful shenanigans, and homes filled with boisterous “uncles” and tippling, excluded “aunts.”
Gleeful image-making permeates
“Our snow was not only shaken from white wash buckets down the sky, it came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees; snow grew overnight on the roofs of the houses like a pure and grandfather moss, minutely ivied the walls and settled on the postman, opening the gate, like a dumb, numb thunder-storm of white, torn Christmas cards.”
The boys imagine themselves as Eskimo-footed Arctic marksmen, snow-blind travelers on north hills, see their large boots as leaving hippo prints, and approach a maybe-haunted house with carols.
It is a tale about memory itself as much as about Thomas’s recollections of childhood, as individual experiences, although some are specifically recalled, merge into sometimes single, catch-all recollection.
Please do listen to Thomas’s reading, a poet’s reading of prose, elevating his story to a form somewhere between literature and song. A smile sprung forth on my face on hearing this (yes, I have heard it more than a couple of times before. The smile returns every time.) and lasted well beyond the delivery of the final sentence. It would, on occasion, pull upwards, straining my cheeks and gums, before settling back a little in preparation for the next assault. The scenes he recalls, and his snarky commentary, will make you smile, probably in recognition of the sort, if not the specifics, maybe even laugh out loud. It always gets a passel of LOLs from me.
The language is celestial, as is his world-class talent for imagery and word-play. It will lift your spirit and make it hover for the duration of the reading, maybe even a while beyond. You could do worse than making the playing of this recitation a seasonal tradition.
One thing this story is likely to do is to spark personal recollections of Christmases of our youth. I would love to hear about yours.
Thomas’s recalled 1920s Christmases resonated with my memories of Christmases in the 1950s and 1960s Bronx. Mine were certainly not all snow-filled, but, as with Thomas’s recollections, they all occupy the well of memory with a fine dusting of white. Unlike Thomas, there is not a single Christmas that stands out from my childhood. Like his, mine have taken on a general character, merging into a common fuzzy-edged recollection.
The space between Thanksgiving and the special morning was always filled with great excitement and anticipation. Going to see the Christmas displays at Macy’s, Saks, Lord & Taylor’s, and even more stores, became a tradition, as was visiting the massive tree at Rockefeller Center. I got to sit on Santa’s lap at Macy’s at least once, but had sense enough to be skeptical even as a sprout. Why would someone claiming to be Santa’s helper look and dress just like him? Something clearly did not add up. The hunt for presents hidden in closets, cupboards, and underneath anything that had an underneath was a seasonal sport.
On Christmas Eve, my sisters (all three much older) would head out for midnight mass, fresh in finery, make-upped, seeming serious. I had no notion at the time that such a display might have been as much a mating ritual as an act of piety. I was spared that particular form of torture, (a Mass even longer and presumably more unendurable than the ones I was forced to attend every week) excused by my youth. Despite my concerted attempts to remain awake hoping to spot Santa, most years I was long asleep before they all arrived back home, cherry-cheeked, coats and hats asparkle as the dim light inside our front door was magnified by reflections from unmelted flakes.
Christmas morning was a bubbling mass of excitement as we all gathered in the living room, and took turns opening gifts. There was always one for me, and for my brother labeled “From Santa,” supplemental to the gifts from our parents, and each other.
As if we were not wired enough from a night of short sleep followed by a meth-level increase in respiration, Christmas breakfast tended to be French toast, slathered with Aunt Jemima’s, Log Cabin, or Vermont Maid. Attending Mass was mandatory, of course. It is a wonder the church did not crumble to the ground from all the child and pre-adolescent vibrations juddering the pews. We would always unwrap an annual gift, a fruit cake, from my father’s aunt, a mysterious figure I never actually met.
In the years since I have come to think of Christmas as akin to the baseball season for us Mets fans. The lead up was all excitement, wondering what goodies might come our way, hoping for some surprises, and that some gift wishes might come true. The reality was rarely very satisfying, filled as it was with things like socks and pajamas. There were toys, of course, but usually of the Woolworth’s sort, things like cap pistols, and plastic trains that rolled uneasily around a circle of plastic rails. Occasionally, there would be something more interesting. A Davy Crockett coonskin cap was a memorable hit. It was my brother who actually got me some of the more exciting, larger-ticket items, a yellow, battery-operated bulldozer, a robot that shot missiles, a wireless walkie-talkie that was pretty cool for 1960.
The day itself was always an opportunity for some of the neighborhood kids to try out brand new sleds. The Bronx may not have San Franciscan hills (although the West Bronx is particularly rich with steep slopes) but there were plenty of hills, snow, slush and ice-covered land to be challenged. Even if you did not get a new sled, there was certain to be a neighbor kid who had, and there was a chance he might let you take it for a ride. Of course, there were always cardboard boxes and trash can lids that offered a sliding descent if not a lot of control. Not that it ultimately made a lot of difference to me. It was while attempting to steer an actual sled down a Tremont Avenue sidewalk that my face made a dent in a stubbornly unmoving tree. Sadly, sledding was one of many skills I never managed to acquire. The tree in our tiny living room was real, in the early years, but as adolescence approached, and my parents ploughed further into middle age, it was supplanted by a disappointing plastic imitation.
The toys were soon in pieces. The new PJ’s supplanted their high-water, short-sleeved predecessors. Winter settled in, and the disappointment of not getting what you really wanted faded. Dashed hope settled back underground, like a perennial, biding its time until the next season arrived for it to sprout forth once again, all shiny and new.
When I had children of my own, I tried to install a few elements to make the day special. We had a tree of course. Watching It’s A Wonderful Life became a Christmas Eve tradition, and I read The Polar Express to them at bedtime. The girls would always find, on Christmas morning, a letter from Santa (typed, in an appropriate font, in red. My hideous penmanship would have been too obvious.) encouraging the sorts of feelings and behavior one might expect from a benign spirit. I made my own Christmas cards for many years, with their names included among the From list. But it was mostly something for me. My greatest parental Christmas triumph, however, was singular. The girls were on the verge of disbelieving. We had recently moved into a new place, a house that featured a beautiful, albeit no longer functional fireplace. I carved a linoleum cut of reindeer hoofs, and proceeded to make hoof prints leading from the fireplace into the living room and kitchen. The girls could not believe that any parent would willingly make such a huge mess, and THEY BOUGHT IT!
Cover of the original Caedmon recording
The season has settled into another phase for us. ¥es, there is still a tree, although this year is likely to be the last of the real ones. There is my wife and our close immediate relations. The tree skirt is reliably populated with resting felines. My children are scattered so are not a presence, which is sad. I have long since ceased making my own cards, Goodreads review-writing having absorbed that artistic impulse. We still have a special meal, including some foods that only appear once a year. We still exchange gifts on Christmas day. And on Christmas eve I harangue my wife into tolerating yet another showing of It’s A Wonderful Life. I still end up in tears. I can only hope that my kids (all grown up now) have happy memories of the holiday, and that they have found some traditions to carry forward for their own (someday) children.
Merry Christmas, Everyone!
Review posted – December 4, 2022
Publication date – 1952, in this form, anyway.
This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads
Items of Interest
—–Wiki on the history of the poem – very informative
—–Faded Page – The full text in multiple formats
—–Harper Audio on Soundcloud – Dylan Thomas’s reading – 25:07 – with an introduction by Billy Collins – worth checking out
—–* Encyclopedia.com – a Child’s Christmas in Wales
—–Vinyl Writers – Dylan Thomas’ Caedmon Readings: Childhood, Death, and the Welsh Wild Wonder