This afternoon I Christmas lunched with my parents and friends of the family and someone complained about an uncle and I said “there are always uncles at Christmas” and everyone seemed very confused.
A Child’s Christmas in Wales is out of copyright in Australia and is therefore available on Gutenberg AU. Though that way you miss out on the lovely illustrations that are in my edition.
Thanks to Alex(-who-no-longer-has-a-blog) this year I also discovered this.
As an atheist child with a Hindu surname in England, Christmas was probably my favourite festival. Diwali involved visits to relatives and amazing food, but I loved winter, and Christmas was all around me, and because it wasn’t ‘our’ festival I didn’t have to adhere to any particular social activities. My Christmases are quiet and personal, and over time they have acquired their own rituals.
Among the more recent of these is a reading of Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales. Thomas was a Welsh poet who was perhaps best known for his radio play Under Milk Wood. It was through Under Milk Wood that a friend and I (the friend who would later gift me my first copy of A Child’s Christmas in Wales) discovered him in school; and it was clear from the beginning that this work was meant to be heard, rather than seen. I could not read it without reading it aloud.
A Child’s Christmas in Wales is made up of two separate pieces. The first, “Memories of Christmas”, was broadcast on BBC radio in 1945. It tells the story of one particular Christmas, when the kitchen caught fire in the house of the narrator’s friend, Jim Prothero. The boys throw the snowballs they had planned to use on the neighbourhood cats into the fire; the firemen come; Christmas is saved, if somewhat damp. As with Under Milk Wood, it’s immediately clear that this was made for radio. Thomas’ prose was meant to be read out loud: “Sleek and long as jaguars and horrible-whiskered, spitting and snarling, [the cats] would slide and sidle over the white back-garden walls, and the lynx-eyed hunters, Jim and I, fur-capped and moccasined trappers from Hudson Bay, off Mumbles Road, would hurl our deadly snowballs at the green of their eyes”. And the piece ends on a lovely, bizarre note when Jim’s aunt walks into the room, sees the firemen, and asks them if they would like something to read.
The second part, “Conversation About Christmas” was written for the magazine Picture Post in 1947. As the title implies, this is a conversation with a much younger child about the narrator’s memories of Christmas. This part, made for print, is scarcely less lyrical than the earlier section, and like it is also touching, and strange, and funny. Here we have Thomas’ account of postmen bearing useful and useless presents, who “with sprinkling eyes and wind-cherried noses, on spread, frozen feet they crunched up to the doors and mittened on them manfully”, of uncles who fall asleep in armchairs after lunch and aunts who get tipsy and sing, and of the time the narrator and his friends went carolling outside a strange house and ran away in terror when a thin, old voice from within joined in “Good King Wenceslas”. The whole thing is suffused by the warmth of nostalgia, a haziness of detail but sharp recollection of feelings. Thomas’ narrator may not be able to 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”, but the fires, the sound of a whistle, the music and the “close and holy darkness” he seems able to experience still.
A Child’s Christmas in Wales was first published as a book in 1954. My edition of Thomas’ gorgeous memoir was published in 2004, when the book was half a century old. It has bright, muddled illustrations by Chris Raschka that almost make up for the disadvantage of having to read and not hear these words. Not that this (or a winter sore throat) has the power to stop me happily croaking and squeaking my way through a dramatic reading of my own. Probably not the best reading of Thomas that I’ll ever hear, but it wouldn’t be a proper Christmas without it.