Wednesday, December 25, 2013

THIS Child's Christmas in Wales

My childhood was spent in Swansea, less than a ¼ mile from Dylan Thomas’ house on Cwmdonkin Drive and to some extent, my memories of my Christmases are not as far from the romanticism of his “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” as I am spatially and temporally removed my childhood in Wales.
If you are not familiar with Thomas’ famous story, shame on you!  Here’s your chance at redemption: You may search your library or bookstore to read it:

or listen here, as the author reads it himself, in New York.
  
On reflection, I have to admit that in our house, as in Thomas’ story, we seem to have celebrated Christmas more as a secular holiday that for its real meaning. Though my mother was ‘Church in Wales’, we all went to church on Christmas Day and enjoyed hearing the church bells pealing out from Sketty at midnight on Christmas Eve, I can’t think of much else that took place ‘ecclesiastically’. I have no recollection of having a ‘creche’ in the house.

We had a ‘real’ Christmas tree, adorned with candles (which I don’t think were ever lit, for fear of burning the house down) and we had colored paper (and tin-foil) chains that we kids made ourselves – along with store-bought rolls of crepe-paper that we festooned around the walls and ceiling. [That was long before my OCD days, for I have no recollection of fussing whether the catenary curves were of equal spacing and amplitude!]  There were fold-out paper bells hung in various places too. I’m not sure, but I believe we had tiny sprigs of mistletoe and holly (with berries of course) placed here and there. The mistletoe of course was over the kitchen door.

I remember, before I discovered the ‘truth about Santa’ – by the way, he is called ‘Father Christmas’ in Wales – the anticipation of waking to find the stocking filled on the foot of the bed when I awoke on Christmas morning. The stocking was almost knee-length, woolen, grey and was one of those that we wore to school – not one of these fancy oversized red (with white trim) things we see these days. The stocking always had a small orange (maybe a tangerine?) planted in the toe and a box of some kind of chocolates in the place where my calf normally rested. Of course, larger items – one year I got a football – were placed alongside the stocking – or on the floor. 

In the afternoon, we’d gather in the parlor - the front room - from which the ‘Nosey-Parkers’ of the street would peer from behind curtains or blinds to see who was going up and down the street. Of course, we never looked out! Beneath the tree there would be boxes of dates – no idea why, and we never saw them except at Christmas. Maybe it was some kind of mental-nexus to the Middle East. We would have bowls of nuts – cobs, walnuts, almonds – and a cracker to split the shells. Crackers! Yes, we had those things called Christmas Crackers – a 12” or so cylinder covered with colored crepe paper, that had a small ‘explosive device’ (must have been from the Free Wales Army, I suppose) and went ‘crack!’ when two people pulled on each end of the cracker.  Out of the cylinder would tumble folded thin paper hats and maybe a kazoo-like thing that unfurled like a giraffe’s tongue when you blew into it and made a most peculiar noise – almost like a donkey braying, or what I imagined was a lamb being slaughtered! 

Christmastime in Wales usually meant a trip into town – to the Grand Theater – to watch a pantomime. Funny word, that. No miming at all – quite clear diction from all the actors, none of whom looked a bit like Marcel Marceaux. The show was often ‘Dick Whittington’ – some kind of frisky feline if I remember correctly – or some other performance with lots of ‘slapstick’ comedy. Good old fashioned humor, with no sexual or violent overtones. Well, the odd ‘villain bashing’ I guess and who knows, there may have been a few fish-net legs for the Dads to ogle – but I was innocent in those days and would have had no inkling of such things.

Christmas dinner, at least when I was a teenager, contained roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, mashed swede and roast potatoes. It was served up about 2 pm – allowing my brothers and I (my father came sometimes) to ‘get a pint or two in’ at the local after 11:00 church service and to whet our appetites. Dad almost never went to the pub, except on such occasions, or drank alcohol at all, though at Christmas he’d treat himself to a flagon of brown ale bought from the Off License down the hill. That bottle (must be about 2-liters I suppose) would sit on the pantry floor – for days! We always had home made Christmas pudding – with a ‘silver 6-penny bit’ concealed in its black innards. There was also always a Christmas cake – laden with fruit and nuts, topped with 1/8” of marzipan and hard-icing over that. ‘Mam’ always let me lick the dough out of the bowl as she made these tasty things on Christmas Eve. May you rest in peace; ‘Dad’, you too.

Yes, my father was a disciplinarian but a hard working and honest man. When I was 8-years old or so, I went out ‘caroling’. Every kid in Swansea probably did that. Whether our motivation was to bring joy to the neighbors, who sometimes anxiously awaited us – and sometime deliberately ignored us – as we hammered on their doors, or whether it was purely the fiscal attraction, I cannot recall. However, the result was that after an hour or so, we’d return home – just around the corner or up the street – with a pocketful of coppers and tanners. Some people, in effect, had simply ‘paid us to leave’, but others had invited us into their kitchen or parlor to actually listen whilst we emitting soprano-screeches that we intended to sound like angelic pacifications. Anyway, one night, I was just 100 yards way from home, when a teenage boy ‘fed me a line’. It went like this: ‘Let me hold your money while you sing, and I’ll fetch an angel’ (maybe a fairy, who knows? I was an 8-year old twerp), ‘and when I return, your money will be doubled!’  A carol or two, and 5 minutes later, I wised up and ran to tell my ‘Dad’, who would have gone to jail if he could have found the bastard that stole my money and my innocence!  

Later, as a teenager, my friends and I would seek out Christmas parties. We’d go to ‘Boots’ on Princess Way (a blydi McDonalds now) and invite the female counter-clerks to ‘a party tonight’. There never was a party already planned, that would only materialize if one was ever dumb enough to say ‘Yes’. Never happened! However, I went to a share of parties. They were mostly ‘fun’, a bit of light petting, no booze - and inspired by the Holy Family, everyone remained virgins - for that night anyway!  

As they used to say in Swansea: ‘Happy Christmas’ (note: ‘Happy’, not ‘Merry’) or if you knew someone who spoke Welsh, it was ‘Nadolig Llawen.  

3 comments:

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    1. That about sums up my childhood. Thanks she sharing

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    2. That about sums up my childhood. Thanks she sharing

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