Sunday, December 23, 2012


DEBORAH CROMBIE: I've had one unbreakable Christmas tradition since my daughter was small and I first discovered Dylan Thomas's A Child's Christmas in Wales. I have a little paper copy of the book (as you can see, it's well used) illustrated with Ellen Raskin's charming woodcuts. How I discovered the poem, and where I got the book, is now lost in the mists of undependable memory.

But find it I did, and I read it aloud on Christmas Eve to my daughter, along with The Night Before Christmas (therefore honoring both her British heritage on her father's side and her American heritage on mine) and sometimes at least parts of A Christmas Carol. Then she grew up, and now I read my tattered copy to myself, the last thing before I fall asleep, every Christmas Eve.

For those of you who don't know Thomas's beautiful, funny, and evocative poem, here's the beginning:

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.

All the Christmases roll down toward the two-tongued sea, like a 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.

It was on the afternoon of the Christmas Eve, and I was in Mrs. Prothero's garden, waiting for cats, with her son Jim. It was snowing. It was always snowing at Christmas. December, in my memory, is white as Lapland, though there were no reindeers. But there were cats. Patient, cold and callous, our hands wrapped in socks, we waited to snowball the cats. Sleek and long as jaguars and horrible-whiskered, spitting and snarling, they would slink and sidle over the white back-garden walls, and the lynx-eyed hunters, Jim and I, fur-capped and moccasined trappers from Hudson Bay, off Mumbles Road, would hurl our deadly snowballs at the green of their eyes. The wise cats never appeared.

We were so still, Eskimo-footed arctic marksmen in the muffling silence of the eternal snows - eternal, ever since Wednesday - that we never heard Mrs. Prothero's first cry from her igloo at the bottom of the garden. Or, if we heard it at all, it was, to us, like the far-off challenge of our enemy and prey, the neighbor's polar cat. But soon the voice grew louder.

"Fire!" cried Mrs. Prothero, and she beat the dinner-gong.

And we ran down the garden, with the snowballs in our arms, toward the house; and smoke, indeed, was pouring out of the dining-room, and the gong was bombilating, and Mrs. Prothero was announcing ruin like a town crier in Pompeii. This was better than all the cats in Wales standing on the wall in a row. We bounded into the house, laden with snowballs, and stopped at the open door of the smoke-filled room.

Something was burning all right; perhaps it was Mr. Prothero, who always slept there after midday dinner with a newspaper over his face. But he was standing in the middle of the room, saying, "A fine Christmas!" and smacking at the smoke with a slipper.

"Call the fire brigade," cried Mrs. Prothero as she beat the gong. "There won't be there," said Mr. Prothero, "it's Christmas."
There was no fire to be seen, only clouds of smoke and Mr. Prothero standing in the middle of them, waving his slipper as though he were conducting.

"Do something," he said. And we threw all our snowballs into the smoke - I think we missed Mr. Prothero - and ran out of the house to the telephone box.

"Let's call the police as well," Jim said. "And the ambulance." "And Ernie Jenkins, he likes fires."

But we only called the fire brigade, and soon the fire engine came and three tall men in helmets brought a hose into the house and Mr. Prothero got out just in time before they turned it on. Nobody could have had a noisier Christmas Eve. And when the firemen turned off the hose and were standing in the wet, smoky room, Jim's Aunt, Miss. Prothero, came downstairs and peered in at them. Jim and I waited, very quietly, to hear what she would say to them. She said the right thing, always. She looked at the three tall firemen in their shining helmets, standing among the smoke and cinders and dissolving snowballs, and she said, "Would you like anything to read?"

Years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were wolves in Wales, and birds the color 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 parlors, 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."

"But that was not the same snow," I say. "Our snow was not only shaken from white wash 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; snow grew overnight on the roofs of the houses like a pure and grandfather moss, minutely -ivied the walls and settled on the postman, opening the gate, like a dumb, numb thunder-storm of white, torn Christmas cards."

"Were there postmen then, too?"
"With sprinkling eyes and wind-cherried noses, on spread, frozen feet they crunched up to the doors and mittened on them manfully. But all that the children could hear was a ringing of bells."
"You mean that the postman went rat-a-tat-tat and the doors rang?"
"I mean that the bells the children could hear were inside them."
"I only hear thunder sometimes, never bells."
"There were church bells, too."
"Inside them?"
"No, no, no, in the bat-black, snow-white belfries, tugged by bishops and storks. And they rang their tidings over the bandaged town, over the frozen foam of the powder and ice-cream hills, over the crackling sea. It seemed that all the churches boomed for joy under my window; and the weathercocks crew for Christmas, on our fence." 

Do read the rest, here.  Or listen to Dylan Thomas read it himself, here. Or watch the lovely film version narrated by Denholm Elliott, if you can find it. 

(You can buy a much less tatty version of the book I have here.) 

However you experience Thomas's poem, I hope it will bring you a glimpse of "the close and holy darkness," and a very blessed holiday season to you all.

Merry Christmas, to my fellow REDS, and to all our wonderful readers, 




  1. Thank you, Debs. We used to listen to it every year on NPR. I wonder if Dylan Thomas was the reader??? Wait a minute. I'll listen to your link... dah dah dah dah dah dah dah... yes! Well at least some of the times it was Thomas. Sometimes they had guest readers, "live." I'm pretty sure I remember... nope, nope... can't remember.

  2. I love it.

    I do have the Denholm Eliot version on VHS, from years ago when I was able to tape and keep and replay everything on my VCR (and still do)

    My printed copy is wonderfully illustrated by Edward Ardizzone.

  3. How have I lived 37 years and never heard this?!

    Thank you so much for sharing it and the links. You have helped me start a new Christmas tradition!

  4. I'd never read or heard it, either. Dylan Thomas has a Mark Twain quality to his writing, yes?

    Wonder if my Welsh brother-in-law reads it every year. He has that same quirky sense of humor.

    Merry, happy to all!

  5. Caroline Todd here. That brings back so many memories. Interesting how WORDS come to mean Christmas. This, and of course Scrooge, and A CHRISTMAS STORY, for three. They touch our imagination and they last. It's wonderful to read these to children for the first time. And speaking of A CHRISTMAS STORY--that's one of the segments on CBS's SUNDAY MORNING this morning! Jungle Red is on the cutting edge.

  6. You Jungle Reds do such a wonderful sharing of Christmas --- I urge you ALL to read our friend Bob Knightly's blog today - Dec. 23 - on his playing Santa Claus!!!!! It is unique and charming!!! at Thelma Straw in manhattan

  7. I remember the lovely Denholm Elliott tv special from my youth and tried so hard to acquire it when I was in the biz. And Debs, I remember that edition of the book when I worked in a Waldenbooks many years ago! I love that you still have it.

  8. Thelma, do you have a link to the blog?

    Ro, I think I might still have a very poor quality VHS version buried somewhere--it was recorded off PBS--but even if I could find it, we no longer have a VHS player.

    The DVD version on Amazon was around $100. Wah!!!!!

  9. Hah! I found this on Amazon for $6.99, and it includes the Denholm Elliott version of A Child's Christmas in Wales. Ordered. Can't wait. Don't care if the other movies are terrible.

  10. Reine, my hubby thinksRichard Burton was the reader....

    Speaking of terrible holiday movies - wow, the Patrick Stewart A Christmas Carol is flatout nasty. I couldn't get past the Ghost of Christmas Past, a truly creepy Joel Grey. I loved PS's one-man show of ACC but this wasn't it!

  11. Thank you, Debs. I'll listen to Dylan himself reading it on Christmas Eve.

  12. I particularly LOVE this passage: "Our snow was not only shaken from white wash 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..."

    Shawling. Great verb. And that image of trees with hands and bodies. Wow.

    I confess I never appreciated this until I was an adult. We did read aloud 'Twas the Night before Christmas..."


  13. Thank you for reminding me of this great Christmas story. I'll look for it.

    Merry Christmas to the Jungle Red family.