WASHINGTON, January 3, 2013 — What annual seasonal traditions did you and your family share this Christmas past? Did you watch “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “White Christmas,” or “The Bishop’s Wife”? Did you attend a production of “A Christmas Carol”? Maybe you read “The Night Before Christmas.” You likely listened to a plethora of songs of the season.
For me, this yuletide was an assemblage of all of these. And, in addition, I enjoyed my yearly reading (aloud) of Dylan Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.”
“One Christmas was so much like another,” wistfully begins this delightful story, “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.”
I was a young man when this work grabbed me by the strings of my heart. Then when I read “A Visit to Grandpa’s” in his “Portrait of the Artist As a Young Dog,” I was instantly a devotee of this great Welsh writer.
How else could one explain my unhesitatingly accepting the invitation of my friend and writer Bob Yates to join him on a trip to South Wales?
How else to account for my wangling a passport in the downtown Washington, D.C. Passport Office in an unheard of three hours? And how else rationalize flying out of DCA to “chase the ghost of Dylan Thomas”?
This latter phase I must credit to Richard Burton. In a televised interview, the renowned Welsh actor explained that sometimes, when his bibulous tendencies proved excessive, he would go off “chasing the ghost of Dylan Thomas.”
Friend Bob and I arrived in Cardiff, capital city of Wales, just before Christmas, We took a tram to the town of Camarthen where we transferred to a bus and traveled on ever narrowing roads to little Laugharne, hometown of Dylan and his wife Caitlin Thomas.
Two years earlier Bob had visited this quaint town and had charmed Mr. and Mrs. John Wiggins, caretakers of the Thomas estate. They welcomed him back, and extended to me, as his friend, a warm welcome, as well.
The estate included the main house, known as the Boathouse, the Thomas home from 1949 until his death in 1953, and “the writing shed” behind it, where Dylan had penned some of his finest work, such as his most famous poem, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” Although this shed was not open to the public, Mr. Wiggins allowed Bob and me to step inside “for ten minutes.”
Standing with outstretched arms in the center of the room, one is just inches short of touching the walls on both sides. Straight ahead a crude desk rests below a tall window overlooking the sands of the placid estuary with its “prancing of the priestly heron,” as Dylan described it in one story.
I could write a book of our visit. I could tell of hiding inside the supposedly closed Iron Cross pub as the town’s only patrol car drove past every twenty minutes; of our scaling the walls of the Laugharne castle, which was under renovation at the time; of the Corporation Arms hotel where we stayed and where octogenarians Billy and Gwilym took their same seats in its pub at 8 o’clock each evening; of Brown’s Hotel where Dylan downed his afternoon drinks; and of the hedgerow which served as his GPS from Brown’s to his home.
Christmas decorations were just beginning to show in the town square and along the narrow streets winding up toward the harp-shaped St. John’s Hill.
However, here I wish to speak specifically of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” For me, it is as delightful a part of the holiday as Dickens’ “Christmas Carol,” Hollywood’s “Miracle On 34th Street,” or Handel’s “Messiah.” And I would hope that readers unfamiliar with this beguiling tale would be persuaded to read it in its entirety. Certainly hearing the recording of Dylan reading this work would prove convincing. (It can be found on Youtube.com. Hear one version below.)
This warm and wonderful work showcases the magical hullabaloo of ballooning words and cleverly crafted imagery of this famed writer who died in New York City 60 years ago this year.
“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.”
I envy those who have the opportunity and pleasure of reading this story for the very first time. Don’t be concerned that Christmas is past for another year. For whenever one reads “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” he or she will feel and reflect that soft yellow glow of a Christmas candle. And there are just 343 days till Christmas.
I wish you each and all a happy and fulfilling New Year.
Vance Garnett has been published in major newspapers and magazines. His writings have earned the praises of luminaries such as the legendary Paul Harvey, White House speechwriter/columnist William Safire, and Shirley Povich, dean of American sportswriters.
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