Clover’s Literary Corner: Memory Magic

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By Clover Carroll

Christmas is a celebration of childhood and of family tradition. Every Christmas Eve, I can see and hear our family singing the Hallelujah Chorus, in harmony, as we arrived home after church at midnight, and knew it was now really Christmas.

The magic and wonder of the childhood Christmas memories so many of us share is nowhere captured more vividly than in “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” the prose poem by Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) that has enchanted children of all ages since it was first performed on the radio in 1950 and published in Harper’s Bazaar in 1952. This dream-like reminiscence of simpler Christmases past reminds us of what Christmas is about–love, family, home, hope, and merriment. Simultaneously nostalgic, magical, and downright hilarious—just like Christmas itself—Thomas’s small masterpiece has become a beloved Christmas classic.

What is a prose poem, anyway? Though presented as prose—that is, in sentences and paragraphs rather than metered lines—Thomas’s writing is condensed and telegraphic like poetry, implying much more than it states, and using words rich in imagery and metaphor, adorned with the kind of musical effects typical of poetry: alliteration, assonance, and onomatopoeia. “Our snow was not only shaken from whitewash buckets down the sky, it came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees…like a dumb, numb thunderstorm of white, torn Christmas cards.” The s- and sh- sounds abounding here create the soft swishing sound of snow falling in the reader’s ear. Thomas’ startling and original use of language—with his whirling bay, flying streets, holy darkness, and long, steadily falling night—reminds me of same-generation American poet e.e. cummings (1894-1962); both revel in the sheer joy of words.

It is no accident that this work was first heard on the radio, and is often credited as launching the audiobook industry. It is meant to be read aloud, and has been read by various actors including Dylan Thomas himself (as you can find on iTunes or YouTube). Later published in book form illustrated by various well-known artists including Edward Ardizzone, Chris Raschka, and Trina Schart Hyman, its oral reading on Christmas Eve has become a family tradition for many.

The short (approx. 15 pages) but intensely lyrical narrative of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” describes in loving detail an amalgam of all the Christmases of the speaker’s comfortable, middle-class childhood during the early part of the 20th century in the small “sea-town corner” of Swansea, Wales. “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 the holidays resting at the rim of the carol-singing sea, and out come Mrs. Prothero and the firemen”—an hilarious anecdote in which the speaker and his friend attempt to put out a kitchen fire with snowballs, while Mr. Prothero waves his slipper “as though he were conducting.” Snow here becomes a metaphor for memory, as we hear about the church bells, aunts and uncles, useful v. useless presents, food (chestnuts, dates, humbugs, “blazing pudding,” and parsnip wine), caroling, and the many snowy adventures of the children. Thomas’s memories are exaggerated to the point of becoming almost surreal, giving the whole a dream-like quality that approaches magical realism. For example, as the boys walk around the village before dinner, they suddenly slip through the boundaries of reality into imagination: “now we were snow-blind travelers lost on the north hills, and vast dewlapped dogs, with flasks round their necks, ambled and shambled up to us, baying ‘Excelsior’”—an allusion to the familiar Longfellow poem about a faithful St. Bernard. In these days before TV or even the phonograph, the evening is blessed with homegrown music-making: singing, fiddle, and piano playing, followed by the telling of “tall tales” and ghost stories. The Christmas Thomas describes is refreshingly free of the commercial trappings that dominate our celebrations today, with no iPads or Wiis, no TV Christmas specials or gift cards, not even the mention of Santa Claus (or any religious observances).

Music, storytelling, and poetry have always been central to Welsh culture, with the poet—purported to have mystical powers and links to the ancient druids—raised to the level of national hero. A revival of traditional Celtic culture in the 19th century led to the establishment of the eisteddfod national poetry and music festival, still celebrated every year in Carmarthen, which culminates with a poetry contest. Dylan Thomas, writing mainly in the 1920s and 30s, became one of the most successful Welsh poets, renowned for poems such as “Fern Hill, “Do Not go Gentle into that Good Night,” and the radio play “Under Milkwood.” With his deep, sonorous voice and delightful enunciation, he became famous for his dramatic readings, both on tour and on the radio. Sadly, Thomas died just after his 39th birthday of pneumonia, with heavy drinking as a contributing factor.

The laughter of Christmas is evoked using the dual perspective that runs throughout the work, with the child’s view—full of wonder and imagination—frequently undercut by the more realistic, ironic perspective of the adult narrator. For example, as the speaker and his friend Jim stalk stray cats with snowballs, “the lynx-eyed hunters, Jim and I, fur-capped and moccasined trappers from Hudson Bay, off Mumbles Road” suddenly jerks us back to humdrum reality. When they become “Eskimo-footed arctic marksmen in the muffling silence of the eternal snows,” the adult voice corrects the child’s with “eternal, ever since Wednesday.” And finally, one of the “useful presents” was “a little crocheted nose bag from an aunt now, alas, no longer whinnying with us.” In one section, the memories are even presented as a conversation between an unnamed adult and child questioner (father and son, perhaps). “Were there Uncles like in our house?” “and then the presents?” the child prompts the speaker. Underlying this humor, however, is a sadness, an unspoken regret for the loss of innocence and childhood’s trust in possibility: “the ice cake loomed in the centre of the table like a marble grave.”

As Faulkner reminds us, “the past is never dead; it’s not even past.” Memories can often seem more real than present truth. Our past experiences express themselves in our present vision of the world, in who we are and how we feel. The traditions of Christmas confirm this, helping to transport us to earlier times. Above all, the Christmas Thomas celebrates in memory is simple and warm, cozy with a sense of community and family togetherness. May your holidays be as full of love, magic, and peace as those here immortalized in exquisite language.