‘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.’
This fragmented memoir pulls together events from several different Christmases and captures both the hazy memories of an adult looking back (very hazy in Dylan Thomas’s case) and a child’s breathless descriptions of the events as they happen.
‘Years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were wolves in Wales, and birds the colour of red-flannel petticoats whisked past the harp-shaped hills, when we sang and wallowed all night and day in caves that smelt like Sunday afternoons in damp front farmhouse parlours, and we chased, with the jawbones of deacons, the English and the bears, before the motor car, before the wheel, before the duchess-faced horse, when we rode the daft and happy hills bareback, it snowed and it snowed. But here a small boy says: “It snowed last year, too. I made a snowman and my brother knocked it down and I knocked my brother down and then we had tea.”’
This is a story best read aloud, the words tumble from your mouth, pausing to linger over the startling imagery. It still holds its power to enthral a young audience right from the opening sequence when the boys lay in wait with snowballs for the far too wily local cats.
To the smoking of candy cigarettes to upset old ladies – something we were still doing in the early eighties.
The cast of strange adults still fascinate, built up to almost mythic proportions they’re like a group of harmless ogres. Best of all is Auntie Hannah, ‘who liked port, stood in the middle of the snowbound back yard, singing like a big-bosomed thrush.’ And later when she ‘had got on to the parsnip wine, sang a song about Bleeding Hearts and Death’.
The book has a special resonance for me as my grandparents grew up at the same time in a Welsh working class community. As a child I’d occasionally encounter various family eccentric family members who could have easily walked from the pages of A Child’s Christmas in Wales. It provides such a vivid connection to a world I only ever glimpsed when she was alive.
Hard to pick a favourite edition of A Child’s Christmas. It’s been illustrated multiple times, from the original woodcuts of Ellen Raskin to the dense pen and ink of Fritz Eichenberg, but I don’t think there’s really a ‘definitive’ version. Even on a list that includes Edward Ardizzone.
The latest version is definitely worth seeking out as it comes with a generous number of colourful illustrations by Peter Bailey which are in the Ardizzone mould.
‘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.’