This is a book that should not be seen so much as heard, and I have a story about hearing it. It is to tell the story that I am recommending the book, though you should read the book, too, when you get a chance. It is fantastic. Here is the first sentence;
“One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and 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.”
I mean, really? Just read that aloud, or, better yet, find a man to read it to you. It has to be a man, some poetry is made for men’s voices, the slow, dark resonance only they can have. Also, you have to get a man who knows how to read aloud well. Not just any man will do. He’s got to get the rhythm, the cadence, right. Better yet if the man you get to read this to you is older, middle-aged at least, and somewhat grumpy. Yes, go find yourself a grumpy old man with a honeyed voice to read this to you, and then fall asleep listening to it when you are six, staring at Christmas lights.
But that is not my story.
My story begins when I was fifteen years old, and sent away to boarding school. I was an odd kid, and that was an odd school, and I was particularly odd when I was in it, though perhaps somewhat less so afterward. I used to describe it as “a military school run by Willie Wonka.” Not that I’d ever had any experience of a military school. What I meant was that it was very strict, and in some ways demanding, and yet all the strictness, all the rules, were filtered through the judgment and personality of a headmaster who didn’t quite agree to live in the same world most of the rest of us do. He was genuine, caring, and yet not quite safe; think of Willie Wonka by Gene Wilder, not Johnny Depp. Think of the scene in the Half Room, particularly. That was A. Michael DeSisto.
It was not quite fun to be there. A lot of kids ran away, or tried to. But—man, did they know how to do Christmas. I had no particular interest in growing up in those days, and I was leaving childhood unwillingly, with no clear idea of what might happen next. I liked the particular feeling of childhood traditions to a child, for instance, though time and adolescence were blowing them away from me like smoke. My first year at school, I could not go home for Christmas, and I feared not being able to, for surely not being at home would end Christmas as I knew it, make the last shreds of childhood drift away? I needn’t have feared it, for on Christmas morning itself there was snow, and fresh deer prints outside of my dorm. And there was A Child’s Christmas in Wales.
Before the winter vacation started, and the kids who could go home did, there was a formal dinner for students and faculty. You had to dress up, and the tables were dressed up with red table cloths and a multi-course meal, and there was a series of performances on a little stage built in the front of the dining hall for the occasion, and caroling afterward. One of the performances was the Dylan Thomas poem, read by Michael, assisted by two boys ready to voice boys, a woman to voice women like Miss Prothero, who asks the firemen if they would like anything to read, and a bell. I think there was a bell, to voice any bells in the story. I remember that Michael did this every year, but also I remember only one iteration of the performance. A trick of memory, perhaps akin to not knowing if the snow lasted for six days or twelve.
Michael was in his mid-fifties at the time, the same age my husband is now, and hence not an advanced age, but some people are born old. If you say it with love, that’s actually a compliment, albeit not one you would actually tell most recipients. Michael was also not exactly grumpy, but he read grumpy very well. No one else could reply to the small boy who 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," with a “but that was not the same snow,” that could wither flowers. Clearly, no modern snow could measure up.
Dylan Thomas’s poem begs inevitable comparison to Gene Sheppard’s A Christmas Story, except the former is what the latter might aspire to be when it grows up. A Christmas Story is great for quotes, a touchstone of popular culture—when my husband reads out “fra-gi-le,” intentionally mispronouncing by pronouncing the “e,” I am always ready to observe “it must be Italian!” But there is little magic or poetry there, and little to attract anyone who does not share the same nostalgic memories. A Red Ryder BB Gun is not quite universal. The Prothero’s cats are.
After the tale was read, and the students whose turn it was to be waiters had cleaned up and finally gotten to bed (somehow I always seemed to be a waiter on Christmas. It was the same way on my birthday. Entirely unfair) there were several days of fairly ordinary campus life, minus any school work and the students who had gone home, before Christmas itself. I remember that year, my first Christmas on campus, away from home, how we were allowed to wake up late and go out, in our pajamas, past the deer prints in the snow, and up to the Great Hall, the room in the Mansion that looked, really, like a small version of something from Harry Potter. Campus had once been a well-to-do horse farm, and the old building flanked by elm trees lent the place a kind of romantic grandeur. On Christmas Day we were allowed to leave the somewhat bare and barren strictness of boarding school, and enter that grandeur in our pajamas.
Little gift bags for each student had been lined up, all along the walls, and we ran around in groups and found them, searching for our own names on the cards. Then there were presents, real presents, from our dorm-parents, except I hadn’t known we would get any from them, and they were signed Santa, so the surprise made the mystery as good as real. I got a Deep Space Nine calendar. We had breakfast and hot chocolate in our pajamas on the Great Hall floor, by a huge Christmas tree, a real tree, decorated in gold and white ornaments and tiny, white lights. There was nothing else to do all day but play with our toys, until it was time to go back to our dorms and get ready for dinner. When we returned to the Great Hall, all the detritus of Christmas morning was gone, and there were tables with red and green table cloths and another formal dinner.
We were all teenagers, some of us legal adults, but it felt, wholly and completely, like a child’s Christmas. And it never has again.
But that was enough.
A Child’s Christmas in Wales; http://www.bfsmedia.com/MAS/Dylan/Christmas.html