Dylan Thomas and “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”–The perpetual present tense

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

With this magical beginning, the spirit of the Christmases of one particular childhood is brought alive into the special awareness we all share, by reference to the moment of brightness just before sleep, and Dylan Thomas begins his tale of all the events of many Christmases, as if they were all rolled into one, all astounding and equally miraculous.

His second paragraph goes thus:  “All the Christmases roll down toward the two-tongued sea, like and cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street, and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged fish-freezing waves, and I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find.  In goes my hand into that wool-white bell-tongued ball of holidays resting at the rim of the carol-singing sea, and out come Mrs. Prothero and the firemen.”

This second paragraph not only strengthens the half-hallucinatory quality of memory, but also strengthens the poetic qualities and aspects of the narration, all while centering on one particular Christmas at the beginning as a way of leading into the wider, more general story of how all the Christmases were alike when Dylan Thomas was young, focusing thus also on the aspect of repetition as a characteristic of tradition.  The odd previously unexplained reference to “Mrs. Prothero and the firemen” draw out one’s curiosity as well, and provoke further attention.

To participate in this poetic piece of prose most fully, it is necesssary to read it aloud, and it comes as no surprise that the work was intended for the radio, full of many “tongued” voices as it is through the narrator’s memory.  There is a vague quality to many of the very items that strike us as most picturesque:  for example, the acts of the aunts and uncles in the story are both traditional and highly characteristic of celebrating adults, yet the identities of some of the uncles are unclear, and one aunt is remembered mainly for getting tipsy whenever possible, without really being an alcoholic, “because it was only once a year.”

The short work is almost like a work of music, starting with a brief flourish, alternating details and word pictures as a piece of music would vary themes, building to several minor crescendos and then featuring moments of what one feels must be a modern Christmas, when a voice or two undefined urges the speaker on to tell of specific details already known to the listeners.  As the time of day changes, so does the elegiac tone increase, until finally night comes.  The last sentence reads, “I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.”

I don’t know what your Christmas traditions are if you have them, but in our family we always read something together on Christmas Eve.  Usually it has been the whole of “A Christmas Carol” (which is long) or for a less attentive audience and a younger one “The Night Before Christmas.”  But if you are looking for something to read together this Christmas Eve, you could do much worse than to be Welsh for a season and to read together “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” by Dylan Thomas.  There are no difficult dialectal words to master or explain, and the whole piece is immensely accessible for young and old alike, regardless of nationality or political affections.  To find this piece on the internet, simply go to Google.com and get on the link www.bfs.media.com/MAS/Dylan/Christmas.html .  And have a happy and blessed holiday in bringing to mind a perpetual present-day vision of your own Christmases past, this season!

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4 Comments

Filed under A prose flourish, Articles/reviews, What is literature for?

4 responses to “Dylan Thomas and “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”–The perpetual present tense

  1. What a wonderful article! May I also recommend to you MY favourite Dickens story, ‘The Chimes’?

    • Thanks, Katia, for the tip. We’ll check it out this season if we can find it, and maybe do a second reading on one of the other days of Christmas! Have a great season (revel in all that wonderful church music and those lovely theatrical productions and people you enjoy over there!).

  2. What gorgeous prose, and, as you say, so close to poetry. Thank you for sharing this lovely work, Victoria.

    • The funny thing is that I couldn’t even remember the title when I set out to find it, and I just thought to myself, “it’s something about a child’s Christmas in Wales, or something like that.” Finally, not finding it on any site under Dylan Thomas for essay, non-fiction, or poetry, I just searched “a child’s Christmas in Wales” and found it. My family really enjoyed reading it on Christmas Eve, with my brother as the family reader, but our youngest had already fallen mostly asleep what with the brief reading of “The Night Before Christmas,” and all the unfamiliar words and old-fashioned lexical items in Thomas’s work which the adults find so evocative and poetic completed his “sleeping pill.” But no matter: he stirred and went up to bed, and then we filled the stockings and wrapped the last of the presents, and went to bed ourselves. Christmas was wonderful, and maybe the young one will someday mature into Dylan Thomas’s work on his own, who knows? Thank you for your appreciation of my effort in finding it, but it wasn’t entirely selfless: I wanted so much to hear it again myself, and so all who took the trouble to read it benefited too. I hope you have a Happy New Year.

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