A Child's Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas, 1955
A CHILD'S CHRISTMAS IN WALES
by Dylan Thomas, 1955
Between his finest collection of prose, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, and his last work, Under Milk Wood, Dylan Thomas's stories tended toward more autobiographical pieces, mainly prepared for radio broadcast during the 1940s. The surrealistic imagery, naturalistic detail, and narrative patterns held in a constant tension in his earlier work are subordinated to a more overt concern with the creative potential of memory. In his later poetry and prose Thomas became fascinated with the perennial Welsh theme of "remembrancing." As defined by novelist Emyr Humphreys, this entails the actual process of trying to recall, with all of its delight and amusement and all of its pain and despair. It has been a central feature of Welsh storytelling for centuries, the mythopoetic quality of an oral tradition focused on the rhythms of the speaking voice and the desire to constantly recreate and reimagine the past.
"A Child's Christmas in Wales" (collected in Adventures in the Skin Trade, 1955) is perhaps the best example of this remembrancing technique, being a fusion of two earlier stories, "Memories of Christmas" and "Conversation about Christmas." The solitariness of the lone perspective used in other stories such as "Peaches" and "One Warm Saturday" is replaced by a strong sense of family ties and communal bonds. Linden Peach has pointed out that the narrative combines three sets of myths: those associated with childhood (the myth of lost innocence), Christmas (the myths of family and community kinship), and Wales (the cultural myths of singing, the harp, and women dressed in shawls and red petticoats). The story follows a rough chronology, an accumulation of humorous anecdotes and acute observations charting the weather, presents, games, food, tales, singing, and finally bed. Thomas the adult writer hovers above Thomas the innocent child, tempering the gleeful memories with constant wry acknowledgments that such details are as much fantasy as fact: "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." The vast white landscape, "eternal, ever since Wednesday," in turn becomes the "inscape" of the middle-aged writer, a metaphor for his dive into memory: "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 comes Mrs. Protheroe and the firemen."
The way in which Thomas holds the adult and childlike versions of reality in a perfect tension is the most obvious strength of the narrative technique. The comparisons and contrasts, the ambivalence and the blending of realistic details with surreal exaggeration, aspires to the condition of that contemporary South American phenomenon known as mythic realism. The boys, hands wrapped in socks for warmth and greater accuracy, snowball the "horriblewhiskered, spitting and snarling" cats before dividing their presents into "Useful" and "Useless" piles. Yet Thomas is rarely interested in grasping people or events precisely, only in exaggerating them precisely. Many of the memories become progressively more ludicrous as fantastic images occur to the author's imagination: "when there were wolves in Wales, … when we sang and wallowed all night and day in caves … before the motor-car, before the wheel." The mis en abyme technique favored by Thomas in many of his stories, the creation of a frame within a frame, is particularly evident in "A Child's Christmas in Wales." The narrator creates a young boy to whom he regales his memories, a boy similar to the young Thomas who in turn listens to "the tall tales" of his uncles before bedtime. One of his remembered presents turns out to be a metaphor for his later profession: "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."
The past and the present, the child and the adult, appear to be one and the same at such moments. The ambivalence between the excesses of an imagined past and their prominence and importance to the adult in the present recurred throughout Thomas's later stories. Two phrases from "Reminiscences of Childhood" serve as an example. In the final section the narrator sadly admits of the Swansea he has recreated, "never was there such a town." Yet the story still ends on the wistful certainty that "the memories of childhood have no order, and no end." It is similar to Proust's concept of "the involuntary memory," the significance of minor details which linger on for no apparent reason, time investing them with an often incomprehensible significance, even when we know they are imagined. "A Child's Christmas" represents the creating of a medium of expression that uses the full potential of language to evoke, visually and aurally, a sense of place and time. Its ending prepares us for the sense of community rarely found in Thomas's poetry but realized in Under Milk Wood:
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.
"A Child's Christmas" celebrates the fact that the actual value of memory lies in the insight that nothing is past. It recalls the sentiments of T.S. Eliot's poem "Little Gidding":
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.