A Child's Christmas in Wales
by Dylan Thomas
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."
"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."
"Get back to the postmen."
"They were just ordinary postmen, found of walking and dogs and Christmas
and the snow. They knocked on the doors with blue knuckles. . . ."
"Ours has got a black knocker. . . ."
"And then they stood on the white Welcome mat in the little, drifted
porches and huffed and puffed, making ghosts with their breath, and jogged from
foot to foot like small boys wanting to go out."
"And then the presents?"
"And then the Presents, after the Christmas box. And the cold postman, with
a rose on his button-nose, tingled down the tea-tray-slithered run of the chilly
glinting hill. He went in his ice-bound boots like a man on fishmonger's slabs.
"He wagged his bag like a frozen camel's hump, dizzily turned the corner on
one foot, and, by God, he was gone."
"Get back to the Presents."
"There were the Useful Presents: engulfing mufflers of the old coach days,
and mittens made for giant sloths; zebra scarfs of a substance like silky gum
that could be tug-o'-warred down to the galoshes; blinding tam-o'-shanters like
patchwork tea cozies and bunny-suited busbies and balaclavas for victims of
head-shrinking tribes; from aunts who always wore wool next to the skin there
were mustached and rasping vests that made you wonder why the aunts had any skin
left at all; and once I had a little crocheted nose bag from an aunt now, alas,
no longer whinnying with us. And pictureless books in which small boys, though
warned with quotations not to, would skate on Farmer Giles' pond and did and
drowned; and books that told me everything about the wasp, except why."
"Go on the Useless Presents."
"Bags of moist and many-colored jelly babies and a folded flag and a false
nose and a tram-conductor's cap and a machine that punched tickets and rang a
bell; never a catapult; once, by mistake that no one could explain, a little
hatchet; and a celluloid duck that made, when you pressed it, a most unducklike
sound, a mewing moo that an ambitious cat might make who wished to be a cow; and
a painting book in which I could make the grass, the trees, the sea and the
animals any colour I pleased, and still the dazzling sky-blue sheep are grazing
in the red field under the rainbow-billed and pea-green birds. Hardboileds,
toffee, fudge and allsorts, crunches, cracknels, humbugs, glaciers, marzipan,
and butterwelsh for the Welsh. And troops of bright tin soldiers who, if they
could not fight, could always run. And Snakes-and-Families and Happy Ladders.
And Easy Hobbi-Games for Little Engineers, complete with instructions. Oh, easy
for Leonardo! And a whistle to make the dogs bark to wake up the old man next
door to make him beat on the wall with his stick to shake our picture off the
wall. And a packet of cigarettes: you put one in your mouth and you stood at the
corner of the street and you waited for hours, in vain, for an old lady to scold
you for smoking a cigarette, and then with a smirk you ate it. And then it was
breakfast under the balloons."
"Were there Uncles like in our house?"
"There are always Uncles at Christmas. The same Uncles. And on Christmas
morning, with dog-disturbing whistle and sugar fags, I would scour the swatched
town for the news of the little world, and find always a dead bird by the Post
Office or by the white deserted swings; perhaps a robin, all but one of his
fires out. Men and women wading or scooping back from chapel, with taproom noses
and wind-bussed cheeks, all albinos, huddles their stiff black jarring feathers
against the irreligious snow. Mistletoe hung from the gas brackets in all the
front parlors; there was sherry and walnuts and bottled beer and crackers by the
dessertspoons; and cats in their fur-abouts watched the fires; and the
high-heaped fire spat, all ready for the chestnuts and the mulling pokers. Some
few large men sat in the front parlors, without their collars, Uncles almost
certainly, trying their new cigars, holding them out judiciously at arms' length,
returning them to their mouths, coughing, then holding them out again as though
waiting for the explosion; and some few small aunts, not wanted in the kitchen,
nor anywhere else for that matter, sat on the very edge of their chairs, poised
and brittle, afraid to break, like faded cups and saucers."
Not many those mornings trod the piling streets: an old man always,
fawn-bowlered, yellow-gloved and, at this time of year, with spats of snow,
would take his constitutional to the white bowling green and back, as he would
take it wet or fire on Christmas Day or Doomsday; sometimes two hale young men,
with big pipes blazing, no overcoats and wind blown scarfs, would trudge,
unspeaking, down to the forlorn sea, to work up an appetite, to blow away the
fumes, who knows, to walk into the waves until nothing of them was left but the
two furling smoke clouds of their inextinguishable briars. Then I would be
slap-dashing home, the gravy smell of the dinners of others, the bird smell, the
brandy, the pudding and mince, coiling up to my nostrils, when out of a
snow-clogged side lane would come a boy the spit of myself, with a pink-tipped
cigarette and the violet past of a black eye, cocky as a bullfinch, leering all
I hated him on sight and sound, and would be about to put my dog whistle to my
lips and blow him off the face of Christmas when suddenly he, with a violet
wink, put his whistle to his lips and blew so stridently, so high, so
exquisitely loud, that gobbling faces, their cheeks bulged with goose, would
press against their tinsled windows, the whole length of the white echoing
street. For dinner we had turkey and blazing pudding, and after dinner the
Uncles sat in front of the fire, loosened all buttons, put their large moist
hands over their watch chains, groaned a little and slept. Mothers, aunts and
sisters scuttled to and fro, bearing tureens. Auntie Bessie, who had already
been frightened, twice, by a clock-work mouse, whimpered at the sideboard and
had some elderberry wine. The dog was sick. Auntie Dosie had to have three
aspirins, but Auntie Hannah, who liked port, stood in the middle of the
snowbound back yard, singing like a big-bosomed thrush. I would blow up balloons
to see how big they would blow up to; and, when they burst, which they all did,
the Uncles jumped and rumbled. In the rich and heavy afternoon, the Uncles
breathing like dolphins and the snow descending, I would sit among festoons and
Chinese lanterns and nibble dates and try to make a model man-o'-war, following
the Instructions for Little Engineers, and produce what might be mistaken for a
Or I would go out, my bright new boots squeaking, into the white world, on to
the seaward hill, to call on Jim and Dan and Jack and to pad through the still
streets, leaving huge footprints on the hidden pavements.
"I bet people will think there's been hippos."
"What would you do if you saw a hippo coming down our street?"
"I'd go like this, bang! I'd throw him over the railings and roll him down
the hill and then I'd tickle him under the ear and he'd wag his tail."
"What would you do if you saw two hippos?"
Iron-flanked and bellowing he-hippos clanked and battered through the scudding
snow toward us as we passed Mr. Daniel's house.
"Let's post Mr. Daniel a snow-ball through his letter box."
"Let's write things in the snow."
"Let's write, 'Mr. Daniel looks like a spaniel' all over his lawn."
Or we walked on the white shore. "Can the fishes see it's snowing?"
The silent one-clouded heavens drifted on to the sea. 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."
We returned home through the poor streets where only a few children fumbled with
bare red fingers in the wheel-rutted snow and cat-called after us, their voices
fading away, as we trudged uphill, into the cries of the dock birds and the
hooting of ships out in the whirling bay. And then, at tea the recovered Uncles
would be jolly; and the ice cake loomed in the center of the table like a marble
grave. Auntie Hannah laced her tea with rum, because it was only once a year.
Bring out the tall tales now that we told by the fire as the gaslight bubbled
like a diver. Ghosts whooed like owls in the long nights when I dared not look
over my shoulder; animals lurked in the cubbyhole under the stairs and the gas
meter ticked. And I remember that we went singing carols once, when there wasn't
the shaving of a moon to light the flying streets.
At the end of a long road was a drive that led to a large house, and we stumbled
up the darkness of the drive that night, each one of us afraid, each one holding
a stone in his hand in case, and all of us too brave to say a word. The wind
through the trees made noises as of old and unpleasant and maybe webfooted men
wheezing in caves. We reached the black bulk of the house. "What shall we
give them? Hark the Herald?"
"No," Jack said, "Good King Wencelas. I'll count three."
One, two three, and we began to sing, our voices high and seemingly distant in
the snow-felted darkness round the house that was occupied by nobody we knew.
We stood close together, near the dark door. Good King Wencelas looked out On
the Feast of Stephen . . . And then a small, dry voice, like the voice of
someone who has not spoken for a long time, joined our singing: a small, dry,
eggshell voice from the other side of the door: a small dry voice through the
keyhole. And when we stopped running we were outside our house; the front room
was lovely; balloons floated under the hot-water-bottle-gulping gas; everything
was good again and shone over the town.
"Perhaps it was a ghost," Jim said. "Perhaps it was trolls,"
Dan said, who was always reading.
"Let's go in and see if there's any jelly left," Jack said. And we did
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, 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.