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 that glorious run-on sentence Dylan Thomas begins his reminiscences of A Child’s Christmas in Wales – his rich memory book of childhood Christmases mangled and magnified through the lens of passing time. The language sings on the page without a musical stave in sight. And if it sings in your mind as you read it, it sings even more on the recording Thomas made in 1952 for the newly created Caedmon Records. Thomas has been contracted by Barbara Holdridge and Marianne Mantall-Roney to record several of his poems but Thomas also wanted to read a story and suggested that a piece he had sold to Harper’s Bazaar Magazine in 1950 would be a good one. Apparently he showed up for the recording – possibly drunk according to Mantall-Roney – without a copy of the text. A frantic scramble produced a copy of the magazine and the text of ‘A Child’s Memories of a Christmas in Wales’. It was the first of the many spoken-word recordings that this company was to produce and though its initial release met with only modest success it is still in the catalogues today.
The story was first published in book form in 1954, two years after Thomas’s death, and has since been republished in several editions. Many of them feature illustrations by well known graphic artists including the 1959 edition with woodcuts by Fritz Eichenberg. Many Christmas’s ago Laurent gave me a lovely little miniature facsimile printing of that edition and each Yuletide it take pride of place on our tree. Thomas’s memories are set amongst our own mementos of Christmases in Ottawa, Montreal, New York, Cairo, Mexico City, Warsaw, Chicago, Hong Kong, Beijing and Rome. Christmases that much like those of Thomas’s childhood have become mangled and magnified by the lens of passing time.
If nothing quite matches the magic of Thomas reading his own words a lovely version was filmed for TV with Denholm Elliot in 1987 comes very close. Though adapted and expanded it remains faithful to the loving nostalgia of the original, never ignoring the humour that Thomas also saw in those memories. And it includes a lovely performance by Elliot as the grandfather recounting the stories of the time when it snowed for six days and six nights when he was twelve. Or was it for twelve days and twelve nights when he was six?
I’ve always wondered that it hasn’t become a Christmas classic amongst all the annual drivel that shows up but it seemed to have disappeared. However I found it available on DVD last year and immediately ordered it. Watching it is now a Christmas tradition in our household along with listening to the original recording.
Here is Thomas in the last passage of that reading made more than 60 years ago that still touches to the heart of the Season.
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, steady 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.
25 December – 800: Coronation of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor, in Rome.