One Christmas was so much like the other, in those years around the sea-town corner now, 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.
Christmas Day is the feast day of childhood. It is the holy day presided over by children which is precisely what makes it the liveliest of the holidays. Though priests have their place and their purpose when it comes to liturgy, they are not the principal celebrants of Christ’s birthday and boyhood. It is to the little ones that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs and Christmas is for children. The excitement and happiness they experience during this time of giving and love is reflective of the wonder and joy at the heart of the season. Christmas is for children and to children it belongs. As they play and prance and pray, their quick and eager minds mold memories that last a lifetime. The memories of Christmas are central to the memory of childhood. All men share these memories; memories held in common, reflecting the common Savior that was born to save common men; memories given unique and universal voice in the prose poem “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” by Dylan Thomas.
Dylan Thomas’s beloved composition is composed of sudden flashes that surround drawn out recollections that tease laughter and tears with the warm, simple delights of childhood. The poem is an ice-crystal kaleidoscope of family and friends, of food and fun, dancing in and out of a white wintry fog of memory. The tipsy tremulous aunt, the sleepy cigar uncles, church bells and snowballs, the postman, the presents, the pranks, the magical even mystical weather, the mingling of fantasy and reality, and Mr. Prothero smacking at a smoking house-fire with a slipper saying, “A fine Christmas!” Though these are Thomas’s Christmas memories, who does not have a claim to such memories? And by having them, who cannot feel a claim even to Thomas’s? Caroling at a haunted house, hunting for cats with snowballs, and the almost divine delight of waiting at the corner with a candy cigarette long enough to be scolded by an old lady and then eating it before her face. These are our memories as well as they are his, just as Christmas is ours as well as his, and Christmastime is a time defined by memories.
“A Child’s Christmas in Wales” is a work of words that reassure readers with the mystery of Christmas and the memory of childhood. It breathes with the glorious instinct of innocence. It pulses with the knowledge that exists before the power to know. It is a poem of first knowledge, or pre-knowledge—the knowledge that is prerequisite to any scientific or ultimate knowledge. It is a poem of poetic knowledge. Poetry is the knowledge of pure and sublime experience, standing outside the categories of scientific knowledge which comprehends truths in an absolute way through their causes. Scientific knowledge is clear and distinct. Poetic knowledge is clear and indistinct, comprehending truth in a vague way: truths such as love, fear, joy—or childhood and Christmas. Everyone knows these things very well, but only as mysteries. The art of poetry is the attempt to create an expression of the knowledge of such experiences, to capture a moment of them and share this ordinary yet extraordinary knowledge. The poetic mode understands things in a distant, delightful way—in a profound way, in the half-light of deep truths.
This poem is the Ghost of Christmas Past for all. And to Ebenezer Scrooge’s question, “Long past?” the answer may be similarly given, “Our past.” As the tale of Scrooge tells, a man’s memories of his Christmas past are enough to carry him to salvation. Even if they are a rushing smorgasbord of pleasure or pain, of heat or cold, of families or fears, the remembrance that all were once children is enough to spark the hope that there may yet, by virtue of that fact alone, be some small claim to the Kingdom of Heaven. There is nothing as fresh as childhood to freshen a worldview, and there are few things like looking back at life to better improve prospects or the determination to look forward. Christmas is for children, and therefore Christmas is for courage, for optimism, for hope. The remarkable power of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” is that it can be about each and every one of us, awakening memories of who we are and why we are, and speak with unspoken confidence about the future as it gives voice to the past. The childish words whispered to the “close and holy darkness” before falling asleep are the prayers of redemption and the pillars of final perseverance.
“A Child’s Christmas in Wales” is not so much about Christmas in Wales as it is about Christmas in the world. By sharing the fragments of his childhood Christmas memories that frame a whole home and a whole family, Dylan Thomas associates them to everyone’s childhood Christmas memories that frame other homes and other families. All Christmases are so much like another. Christmas is unmistakable in Thomas’s own personal memories—and they are memories that everyone has in one form or another. “I made a snowman and my brother knocked it down and I knocked my brother down and then we had tea.” Everyone shares Christmas and everyone’s Christmas memories are the same, embodied by visions, vignettes, and voices that hang on the edge of a stream or dream of consciousness, never totally clear, but always strong in impression and presence, at once as distinct and indistinct as shifting temperatures or silver smoke or shimmering scents, and, though glancing and ghostly, are the very foundations of security.
Always on Christmas night there was music. An uncle played the fiddle, a cousin sang “Cherry Ripe,” and another uncle sang “Drake’s Drum.” It was very warm in the little house. Auntie Hannah, who had got on to the parsnip wine, sang a song about Bleeding Hearts and Death, and then another in which she said her heart was like a Bird’s Nest; and then everybody laughed again; and then I went to bed. Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored 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.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is Dylan Thomas broadcasting on BBC. “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” was first read on the BBC in 1952. It was published as a book in 1955.