A Child’s Christmas in Wales

22 Dec

One of my favourite Christmas traditions is curling up on the sofa and re-reading Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales. Over the years, I’ve amassed a nice little collection of various editions of the book, and am always on the lookout for more.

My oldest copy is a second edition (what I wouldn’t give for a first!) which my mother bought back in ’55 when she was living in Manhattan. It’s especially nice because she inscribed her name (when it was her maiden name) inside. It’s the only one I have without illustrations, though it does have lovely lettering throughout.

My other favourite is one featuring illustrations by Edward Ardizzone, my all-time favourite illustrator. He’s absolutely brilliant and I’m somewhat of an Ardizzone collector too.

Then I have a teensy copy with very clever little woodcut engravings by Fritz Eichenberg, a German-American who was once head of the art department at RISD.

Another newer edition from the ’80s includes lovely illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman. Although Hyman is American, she studied art in Sweden and I think her illustrations are very Swedish-looking.

My most recent copy was published in 2004 and is illustrated by Chris Raschka, a Caldecott winner whose work is colourful, modern and vibrant.

Here are a few of my favourite passages and illustrations from some of my books.

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 day and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve  nights when I was six.

It was on the afternoon of the day of Christmas Eve, and I was in Mrs. Prothero’s garden, waiting for cat, with her son Jim. It was snowing. It was always snowing at Christmas. December, in my memory, is white as Lapland, though there were no reindeers. But there were cats. Patient, cold and callous, our hands wrapped in socks, we waited to snowball the cats. Sleek and long as jaguars and horrible-whiskered, spitting and snarling, they would slink 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.

… soon the fire engine came and three tall men in helmets brought a hose into the house and Mr. Prothero got out just in time before they turned it on. Nobody could have had a noisier Christmas Eve. And when the firemen turned off the hose and were standing in the wet, smoky room, Jim’s aunt, Miss Prothero, came downstairs and peered in at them. Jim and I waited, very patiently, to hear what she would say to them. She said the right thing, always. She looked at the three tall firemen in their shining helmets, standing among the smoke and cinders and dissolving snowballs and she said, “Would you like anything to read?”

“Were there postmen then, too?”

“With sprinkling eyes and wind-cherried noses, on spread, frozen feet they crunched up to the door and mittened on them manfully.”

“Get back to the Presents.”

“There were the Useful Presents: engulfing mufflers of the old coach days, and mittens made for giant sloth; zebra scarfs of a substance like silky gum that could be tug-o’-warred down to the galoshes; blinding tam-o’-shanters like patchwork tea cozies and bunny-suited busbies and balaclavas for victims of head-shrinking tribes; from aunts who always wore wool next to the skin there were mustached and rasping vests that made you wonder why the aunts had any skin left at all; and once I had a little crocheted nose bag from an aunt now, alas, no longer whinnying with us.”

“Go on to the Useless Presents.”

“Bags of moist and many-coloured jelly babies and a folded flag and a false nose and a tram-conductor’s cap and a machine that punched tickets and rang a bell; never a catapult; once, by mistake that no one could explain, a little hatchet …  And troop of bright tin soldiers who, if they could not fight, could always run. And Snakes-and-Families and Happy Ladder. And Easy Hobbi-Games for Little Engineers, complete with instructions. Oh, easy for Leonardo!”

“And a packet of cigarettes: you put one in your mouth and you stood at the corner of the street and you waited for hours, in vain, for an old lady to scold you for smoking a cigarette, and then with a smirk you ate it.”

“Mistletoe hung from the gas brackets in all the front parlours; there was sherry and walnuts and bottled beer and crackers by the dessertspoons; and cats in their fur-abouts watched the fires; and the high-heaped fire spat, all ready for the chestnut and the mulling pokers”

Then I would be slap-dashing home, the gravy smell of the dinners of others, the bird smell, the brandy, the pudding and mince, coiling up to my nostril, when out of a snow-clogged side lane would come a boy the spit of myself, with a pink-tipped cigarette and the violet past of a black eye, cocky as a bullfinch, leering all to himself. I hated him on sight and sound, and would be about to put my dog whistle to my lips and blow him off the face of Christmas when suddenly he, with a violent wink, put his whistle to his lips and blew so stridently, so high, so exquisitely loud, that gobbling faces, their cheeks bulged with goose, would press against their tinseled windows, the whole length of the white echoing street.

Aunt Hannah, who liked port, stood in the middle of the snowbound back yard, singing like a big-bosomed thrush.

Aunt Hannah laced her tea with rum, because it was only once a year.

In the rich and heavy afternoon, the Uncles breathing like dolphins and the snow descending, I would it among festoons and Chinese lanterns and nibble dates and try to make a model man-o’-war, following the Instructions for Little Engineers, and produce what might be mistaken for a sea-going tramcar.

Always on Christmas night there was music. An uncle played the fiddle, a cousin sang “Cherry Ripe,” and another uncle sang “Drake’s Drum.”

Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-coloured snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steadily falling night. I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.

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3 Responses to “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”

  1. Liz December 22, 2010 at 10:35 am #

    I try and read this every Christmas and ‘A Christmas Carol’ too…I love the idea of making a collection of different editions of one book. A couple of years ago at the Library someone gave us a lifetime’s collection of ‘Treasure Island’…

  2. Caryn December 24, 2010 at 2:29 am #

    I like Ardizzone, too. I swear he had some connection to the artist I’m writing my PhD about. Argh! I wish I had my notes and stuff with me!

  3. Trace December 25, 2010 at 7:54 pm #

    nice!

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