I was first introduced to Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” as an undergraduate. I lived in a dorm housing a residential college program for academically minded students, and one of the weekly activities was a literary society. At that groups’ final meeting each fall semester a professor – a biologist by trade – would recite “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” from memory. A recording of Thomas reading his short narrative was very popular in the 1950s and 60s, and it was from this 45” that the professor memorized the piece. Hearing Thomas’ work recited each December became a highlight of the Christmas season, and the piece remains one of my favorite holiday works.
“A Child’s Christmas in Wales” is more of a recollection of moments rather than a straightforward narrative. The story begins with the narrator recounting how all of his Christmas memories blur together – “All the Christmases roll down toward the two-tongued sea, like a cold a headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street” – followed by a Christmas Eve attempt to ambush a neighbor’s cat with snowballs. When the operation fails, he and his friends end up aiding the fire department by hurling their snowball’s into the neighbor’s smoking kitchen, which may or may not have actually been ablaze, as a stove fire at this home is as much a Christmas tradition as trees and tinsel.
The story then turns more nostalgic, as the narrator begins to recount Christmas mornings to a group of contemporary children, who are more interested in the presents he received than the details of family, such as “There are always Uncles at Christmas. The same Uncles…and some few small aunts, not wanted in the kitchen, nor anywhere else for that matter, sat on the very edges of their chairs, poised and brittle, afraid to break, like faded cups and saucers.”
After the presents, which include a dog whistle and candy cigarettes, the narrator has to escape the busy house, so he goes for a walk. He runs into another boy, dressed as he, with the exact same whistle, whom he hates “on sight and sound.” They have a battle of the whistles, blowing “so stridently, so high, so exquisitely loud” that they disturbing the neighbors and all of the dogs along the street. He returns home for the large evening meal of “turkey and blazing pudding” before going caroling with friends. As they sing “Good King Wenceslas” at one door “a small, dry voice, like the voice of someone who has not spoken for a long time, joined our singing: a small, dry, eggshell voice from the other side of the door: a small dry voice through the keyhole. And when we stopped running we were outside our house…” where they forget their fear in favor of dessert. That night the narrator watches the neighborhood lights slowly fade as Christmas ends. He goes to bed, closing the work with my personal favorite last line in all of literature: “I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.”
And that’s it. “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” is short (my 1995 New Directions reprint edition is 58 pages including several full page illustrations. Thomas’ recorded reading runs approximately 20 minutes). There is no true narrative arc or character development. The story waxes sentimental quite frequently, especially when the narrator is speaking to the children, and this aspect often leads to its dismissal by critics. But just because Thomas dances along the line of romantic sentiment does not mean that his narrator is simply polishing up the past for the sake of being frivolous.
The story finds its power not in nostalgia but in the relatable rendering of the Christmas experience. The narrator recounts being surrounded by family but their presence carries no weight. The aunts and uncles are interchangeable occupiers of space. His parents are not mentioned (in sharp contrast to Thomas’ most famous poem and plea to his father, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”). He has friends but no siblings.
He is distant from his extended family, even uncomfortable, and can only stand being in the busy Christmas house for so long. The best memories of Christmas come from the moments he escapes the family celebration and goes out walking, either with his friends or by himself. The ending is muted but remarkable: as a child on Christmas he surrenders his presents and puts himself to bed with no adult urging (Good luck with that at your Christmas gathering).
The story also avoids the idealism of many traditional Christmas tales. There is no striving to make the world better. There is no wish for peace on Earth. Christmas is restricted to a forced gathering of family. The only hint at the religious comes in the closing line: “I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.”
It may be the realistic rendering of the Christmas experience that attracted me to the story. Family gatherings are joyous times, but also they also are stressful and burdensome. Families furiously cling to practices they see as their traditions, long after the reasons that fostered them have been forgotten. This holiday is hard, people dread it, but no one is allowed to admit it. Christmas carries a lot of expectations that are impossible to meet, yet we cling to a false memory that they were in a past year that no one can precisely pinpoint. These memories are a lot like Thomas’ opening lines: “One Christmas was so much like another” – so much so that it becomes difficult to find something unique about any one.
“A Child’s Christmas in Wales” is not a work of nostalgia. The story uses sentimentality to tap into Christmas, but it is not doing so in order to rebuild the holiday into something that it never was. That the piece was popularized by Thomas’ recording does it no favors; his dramatic voice is built for sentimentality. The 1950s also burdens the piece, as no decade has become more enshrouded in false romantic memory. “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” is not a 50-page Hallmark card. It is an attempt to wrestle a heavyweight holiday. It doesn’t win, but it doesn’t get squashed as many readers would like to remember.
Track down a copy of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” in your local bookstore’s post-Christmas clearance section. There are many editions, most with a variety of illustrations. Until then, have a listen to Thomas’ 1952 recording:
Pages: 58 FoA Pages: 32,513