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Title: A Child's Christmas in Wales
Author: Dylan Thomas
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 0701261.txt
Language:  English
Date first posted: December 2007
Date most recently updated: December 2007

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Title: A Child's Christmas in Wales
Author: Dylan Thomas

One Christmas was so much like the other, 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.

All the Christmases roll down towards 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

It was on the afternoon of the day of 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, although 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 slide 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,
towards 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

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. "They won't be here," said Mr. Prothero, "it's

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 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; 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 thunderstorm 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

"I mean that the bells that 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."

"Get back to the postmen."

"They were just ordinary postmen, fond 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

"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's pond and 
did and drowned; and books that told me everything about the 
wasp, except why." 

"Go on to 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 a 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 color I please, 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, cracknel, 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 mornings, with dog-disturbing whistle and sugar
fags, I would scour the swathed town for the news of the
little world, and find always a dead bird by the Post Office 
or the white deserted swings; perhaps a robin, all but
one of his fires out. Men and women wading, scooping back
from chapel, with taproom noses and wind-bussed cheeks, all
albinos, huddled 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 edges 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 curling 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 to himself.

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 cheek 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. Aunt 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, then 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
sea-going tramcar.

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
deep footprints on the hidden pavements.

"I bet people will think there've been hippos."

"What would you do if you saw a hippo coming down our

"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 towards us as we passed Mr.
Daniel's house.

"Let's post Mr. Daniel a snowball through his letter box."

"Let's write things in the snow."

"Let's write, 'Mr. Daniel looks like a spaniel' all over his

Or we walked on the white shore. "Can the fishes see it's

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 where 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 that.

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, 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.

The End

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