The assignment for my seventh and eighth graders was to select one of Dylan Thomas’s topic sentences, each borrowed from a paragraph of his famous “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” and use it to begin their own recollection of their local or familial holidays. We had read Thomas’s wonderful story, watched an excellent film version of it, and looked outside as the snow hushed Castine on Wednesday morning – inspiring writing weather, to be sure, for kids in a harbor town in the northern latitudes.
You could begin, “One Christmas was so much like another, in those years....” Or perhaps you preferred, “All the Christmases roll down toward the two-tongued sea....” I am fond of this one: “There are always Uncles at Christmas.” With such prompts, it was important to review two crucial writing rules: "Never let the facts get in the way of a good story." And "It’s all true, even if it never happened." It was time to stretch out and inhabit the feeling of the season in words, to don the mantle of Thomas and Wales and merge wolves in Wales with Castine with cherished candy, mittens, firemen and tipsy aunts.
“Bring out the tall tales now that we told by the fire,” wrote Thomas. And so we plunged our hands in and brought out the memory of the year Olivia and Jacey made the snow dog, instead of snowman, and named him Veggie Bob Dog, due to his broccoli eyes, cauliflower nose, and carrot mouth. On the same day they invented jelly snowballs. “You have to pack the snow together, and dig a little hole in it,” said Jacey – which tasted pretty disgusting, according to Olivia.
Christmas means movies: "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," "White Christmas," "The Nutcracker," or the ubiquitous "Grinch." Surely he is one of the salty, bitter tongues of the see of Christmas – the spoiler, the gift thief, and the humbug.
What about the uncles, or aunts, or visiting cousins; nonnies and nannies and oomas? One uncle lived in a tipi, with the ornaments and decorations hung from the poles inside. For one student, Christmas in California has a way of becoming cultural adventures for travelers from the East.
Any Maine forest-dweller knows that choosing exactly the right tree is “a very annoying, yet rewarding job.” With hundreds to choose from, it’s hard to detect “the perfect one for you, your family, and of course, your house.” Alex defined the rubric for choice: not “too tall, or too short; too narrow, or too wide; too wet, or too dry; too brown, or too green; too small, or too big; too many branches or too few; too saggy, or too lopsided.”
And once the tree is correctly placed, bringing the outside in, and turning the house inside out with the aroma of spruce or fir, the decorating begins. “I get the white, wooden snowflake,” writes Meredith, “and Sawyer gets the wooden moose that has a string attached to make its leg move when you pull it. We hang them on a different branch and go back to get the next ornaments. We hang up angels with newspaper for wings, Pillsbury dough men, cupcakes with shiny pink and green frosting and Minnie and Mickey Mouse bobble heads. Then, we grab our mugs and Dad puts another log in the fire and we sit back to play a few card games and enjoy our work.”
Who wants a useful present, “such as warm, fluffy hats, and soft, handmade scarves; socks and white T-shirts?” You can’t play with T-shirts, thought Gabriel. Uncle Ely to the rescue: “There appeared a blue Yamaha RC snowmobile, with batteries.” Think of all the mystery, majesty, and quasi-ecclesiastical authority in the phrase, “There appeared.” Game Boys we have heard on high, sweetly beeping all o’er Maine. What would Dylan Thomas say? “Years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were remote-controlled, battery-operated Big Wheels in Wales….” It’s hard to hear the absence of the sound of snow filling the fir boughs above the mechanical whine and torque of the latest radio toy vehicle.
There are essential letters. “I was worried whether I had been clear enough in my letter to Santa,” wrote Madison. “I had asked for a Barbie Car. There was a lot at stake this Christmas, and it was my first letter to Santa. I was four.”
There are snow days, gifts of leisure time packaged and delivered with the actual raw materials of fantastic winter play. Not too many snow days, please, lest we find ourselves paying for them with school days in July – a high interest rate, to be sure. Just enough. “The huge snowdrifts from the plow make excellent forts,” wrote Meredith, “and the pile of snow at the bottom of the slide is soft and powdery from the dry wind and freezing air.” After a full day of such cold-pile jumping, “a hot cocoa with extra marshmallows and a peppermint stick” await inside.
And finally we all close our eyes with something like this favorite Christmas poem by Bill Watterson: “Tomorrow’s what I’m waiting for, but I can wait a little more.” We can all feel what it’s like to think, just before slumber, as Thomas did, “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.”
And we can all hear the other tongue of the sea, lapping at the silken shore of memory and care. And there appeared peace.