Outside of the two Gospel narratives of the birth of Jesus Christ, there are really very few “Christmas classics” in literature. There’s O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi”, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, and, though it’s just a short letter, “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus.” Also, there’s the true story of “The Miraculous Staircase” of New Mexico by Arthur Gordon. The last three of these are collected in my favorite Christmas anthology, Norman Rockwell’s Christmas Book (NY: Harry N. Abrams, 1977, 1993), a lavishly illustrated compendium of poetry, prose, recipes, hymns, and remembrances.
One “classic” that didn’t make the above collection but remains one of my all-time Christmas favorites—and a perennial best-seller—is Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales, which celebrates its 60th birthday this year.
“A classic,” said publishing legend (and best-friend of Thomas Merton) Robert Giroux, “is a book that stays in print.” In that sense, A Child’s Christmas in Wales is definitely a “Christmas classic”, with sales of more than 750,000 copies.
Further, before he died at the all-too-young age of 39, Thomas, who had one of most sonorous voices any public speaker could covet, recorded A Child’s Christmas in Wales for Caedmon Records. He also recorded some of his best-known poems (“And Death Shall Have No Dominion”, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”, “Fern Hill’, and “The Force That Through The Green Fuse Drives the Flower”) for the same release. So we have a record, literally, of HOW this unique little book should sound when read aloud. Of all the many famous poets and writers of the 20th century, Thomas may have had the greatest voice.
But some Christmas traditions are tough to get into. When I was a child in Niagara Falls and my dad first pulled out both the recording and the actual booklet of A Child’s Christmas In Wales, I was struck by the fact that it is a story that doesn’t seem to make any sense. For instance, the booklet opens with:
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 I 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.
To the literal-minded (as I was then), that run-on sentence is more confusion than clarity and it doesn’t even make any sense. I was convinced my dad was off on some tangent, so I smiled politely and tried to make sense of the Welshman’s booming voice from the stereo. It sounded more like a collection of words rather than a story proper, or even poetry.
The years went by. I and the world grew older and more cynical I guess. Christmas became more and more for children and, at least theologically, the Paschal Triduum took pride of place not only on the liturgical calendar, but in my soul and mind.
I don’t know how it happened, exactly, but the first Christmas break from college a friend of mine suggested we invite all our high school friends, who were back in town for Christmas recess, to a Christmas party where we would read Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales. Whoever suggested it—all I know is that it was not my idea—was a genius.
This was fortuitous as I had my dad’s recording of Dylan Thomas and my own copy of the book, too. So in the winter of 1988, in my friend’s basement where he lived throughout college, we began a tradition of reading this small book together with friends. The rule was that if you came to the party, you HAD to read, and you read from “woodcut to woodcut”, as the book has no chapters or any other formal breaks in it, the unique woodcuts providing the only break in the text. Later editions replaced these singular woodcuts with illustrations by Fritz Eichenberg, which I find too literal. I like to imagine Wales in Thomas’s words, rather than see drawings of it.
We read in the dark, with the lights off, save the Christmas tree we’d just trimmed. Friends came and went, old friends faded out, new friends brought first-time acquaintances, but for a solid nine straight years, we always read Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas In Wales at Christmas time.
A big part of the charm of this unique little book is that it is a perfect example of the “stream-of-consciousness” technique of writing—but because the book is so short (58 pages with the illustrations), it’s not overwhelming or totally incomprehensible. And I think when you turn 18, you can look back at your Christmases, whether in Wales or Niagara Falls, and see a sort of universality in passages like:
Some few large men sat in the front parlors, without their collars, Uncles almost certainly, tying 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.
This is certainly an unflattering portrait of one’s relatives—but it rings true because it is, quite possibly, how a child would remember: not passing value-judgements, but recalling how it seemed, not how it actually was. Or as the Irish like to say, “This may not be the way it happened, but it IS the truth.”
The book is so short that to quote more of it at length would almost be an injustice. Suffice to say there is the childhood division of “useful” and “useless” presents, questions only a kid would come up with (“Can fishes see that it is snowing?”), and even a neighborhood fire on Christmas day (a good reason to keep real candles off Christmas trees).
British historian Sir Kenneth Clark once remarked that one can read all the plays and poetry of William Shakespeare and all of the essays of Michel Montaigne and not come across any mention of God, or at least of organized religion. I haven’t read all of Shakespeare or Montaigne to fact-check this. However, while there’s no Midnight Mass in A Child’s Christmas In Wales, there IS the lost art of Christmas caroling. And of all the dozens of carols Thomas could have chosen (or remembered) it is significant that the lines he sings (literally on the record) are:
Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the Feast of Stephen…
One carol, two great martyr-saints recalled by a small boy in a short-story by a now-dying not-old man—the book was published posthumously—whose own description of himself was “One: I am a Welshman; two: I am a drunkard; three: I am a lover of the human race, especially of women.”
The only tradition I insisted on adding to our annual reading of A Child’s Christmas In Wales—and here I suppose I am obliged to state “Spoiler Alert”—was that I always got to read the final lines of the book, which are pure poetry. Simply put, I find them among the most beautiful that any poet has crafted in English in the past or any century:
I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.