5 pleasures from 'A Child's Christmas in Wales' on the centennial of Dylan Thomas's birth

What Thomas captures beautifully in 'A Child's Christmas in Wales' is the dreamlike quality of Christmases past.

'A Child's Christmas in Wales' by Dylan Thomas has become a classic of the season.

Millions of people around the world are opening Christmas presents today, but the holiday really doesn’t depend on elaborate gifts to bring its joy.

Just ask poet Dylan Thomas, who continues to speak, more than a half a century after his death, from “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” a classic yuletide story getting an even higher profile this year because 2014 marks the centennial of Thomas’s birth. He was born 100 years ago this year – on Oct. 27, 1914 – in the Welsh coastal community of Swansea.

One of the great pleasures of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” is that it doesn’t preach, doesn’t really insist on anything as high-minded as a moral. But read this slender book attentively, and you’ll notice that toys and trinkets, although they make bright cameos in the story, aren’t central to the narrative. The biggest smiles come from the Christmas companionship of friends, neighbors, and extended family.

Many families honor Christmas each year by reading “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” aloud. Thomas himself would probably be surprised by the story’s longevity. He did not, after all, seem intent on crafting a classic when set his yuletide memories on paper.

Thomas was a brilliant poet, but a troubled one. He drank too much, compromised his health, and died much too early on Nov. 9, 1953 in New York City, where he’d initially gone to conduct some poetry readings to pay his bills. He didn’t merely recite poetry; he performed it, establishing a standard for poetry readings that many contemporary poets continue to follow.  Thomas is best known for “Do not go gentle into that good night,” a poem about his dying father that tellingly anticipated the poet’s own passing.

But “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” a small prose work, finds Thomas on happier terms. One gathers that he wasn’t really trying to speak to the ages when he wrote it; he was, rather, answering a couple of quick assignments to earn some cash. The offhand flavor of the book is, in fact, its principal charm.

“A Child’s Christmas in Wales” was originally two pieces – a BBC radio broadcast called “Memories of Christmas,” and a magazine article for Picture Post called “Conversation About Christmas.” He later stitched both compositions into a single essay for Harper’s Bazaar, “A Child’s Memories of Christmas in Wales.” That essay became the posthumously published book we now know as “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.”

Nothing much happens in the book – at least nothing so dramatic as a Scrooge reforming his soul, or a boy pining away for a Red Ryder BB gun. It’s really an assortment of observations filtered through memory, but what Thomas captures beautifully is the dreamlike quality of Christmases past – how they seem equal parts personal history and fevered imagination.

That aspect of the book seems most fully realized in the 2004 Candlewick Press edition of the book, still in print, which includes the sublimely surreal illustrations of Chris Raschka. Try to get a copy of the Candlewick version at an after-Christmas sale if your house doesn’t already have its own copy of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.”

In the meantime, here are five passages from the Thomas narrative. Thomas knew that the best gift of the season – and any season – is a story well told. And that, courtesy of Thomas, is our gift to you today:

1) “One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now ... 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.”

2) “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.”

3) “It was always snowing at Christmas. December, in my memory, is white as Lapland, though there were no reindeers.”

4) “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.”

5) "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, steadily falling night. I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and I then slept."

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