As rich and filling as a thick slice of plum pudding, ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’ reminds me of all the Christmases I never had as a child (my parents had no time for that sort of thing), and of all the other Christmases I’ve missed as a grown-up through work or travel or simply being alone, by choice or necessity. I first read it as a teenager at a time when I had a particular passion for Thomas’s prose. Most of his poetry left me cold back then, and still does, but I loved Under Milk Wood, the short stories, the unfinished novel Adventures in the Skin Trade and the letters. Everyone should read the letters.
‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’ is hardly a story at all, more a shrewdly calculated exercise in nostalgia. A cynic may dislike the author’s ingratiating approach, but I’m no cynic and find it irresistible. There’s a boozy sentimentality underlying it all, and what could be more appropriate at this time of the year? Whenever I read it to myself, or read it to others (avoiding any attempt at a Welsh accent), I am always reminded of those densely-populated Giles cartoons in the Daily Express (once a great newspaper) showing a crowded family kitchen at Christmas time, full of steaming saucepans and bickering kiddywinks, with Mum serenely rolling pastry and Dad asleep with a newspaper spread over his face, the terrifying Grandma tippling sherry in her armchair, the dog chasing the cat under the table, the snow falling outside. An image of warm familial contentment – tolerant, cluttered, secure and chaotic. Christmases were never like this, but it’s a consolation to imagine that they could have been, at least for the Thomases of Cwmdonkin Drive, Swansea.
The paragraphs are jam-packed with vividly-rendered upper-cased Presents: the Useful (home-knitted clothes mostly but including, in a favourite phrase, “books that told me everything about the wasp, except why”) and the Useless (“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”). The house is likewise packed with significant upper-cased Uncles and Aunts (“Auntie Dosie had to have three aspirins, but Auntie Hannah, who liked port, stood in the middle of the snowbound back yard, singing like a big-bosomed thrush”). There’s plenty of Just William-style mischief as the young Dylan and his pals Jim and Dan and Jack roam the town and the beach with their sweet cigarettes and dog-whistles. A snow-covered Swansea plays host to a surreal menagerie of creatures: cats, dogs, reindeers, wolves, bears, sloths, camels, a zebra, hippos and a clock-work mouse (which frightens Aunt Bessie, twice). There are also trolls and ghosts and, in a terrifying moment, “a small, dry, eggshell voice from the other side of the door”.
Perhaps you have no appetite for plum pudding and I’ll admit that, for the rest of the year, my own tastes incline to the austere. But this, believe me, is a quarter of an hour well spent and a perfect accompaniment to egg-nog. I expect you’ll enjoy it.
PS I have a theory that when writing the dialogue in the story Thomas was influenced by the Robert Graves poem ‘Welsh Incident’ (1929). Here’s a recording of Thomas reading it very badly, and here’s Richard Burton reading it brilliantly. See what you make of them both.
First published in Harper’s Bazaar in 1950, including material from a radio broadcast written for the BBC in 1945, and a 1947 essay for Picture Post. Currently published by Orion, 2006. Available online here
Chosen by David Collard. David is a writer and researcher based in London. His most recent book is About a Girl (CB editions). He contributes to the forthcoming anthology We’ll Never Have Paris (Repeater Books, March 2019) and is currently working on a group biography of London writers in the 1970s.
Read David’s previous contributions to A Personal Anthology here