On this eve of Christmas Eve, in the midst of what I hope has been a cheering, luminous month for my readers, I bring to you first a suggestion that you read or revisit a favorite Christmas story: poet Dylan Thomas' A Child's Christmas in Wales. While considered to be a work of prose, nearly every sentence and every image of Thomas' recounting of his childhood Christmases is poetry: perfect, evocative, indelible. Thomas gives us his childhood Christmases in their cumulative impact: merging them all -- as our minds do overlay memory upon memory -- into one, single, warm, lustrous, hallowed day: one "never to be forgotten day at the end of the unremembered year."
At the story's outset, Thomas imagines all of his Christmases rolling down the Welsh hills towards the sea like a momentous snowball of memory. And it is into this snowball he dips to bring us his glittering remembrances, idiosyncratic and precious as each individual snowflake.
"All the Christmases roll down toward 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 hand 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 caroling singing sea."
Many times I have wished to pay homage to my childhood Christmases and to recreate them in some similar, poetic fashion, but it seems to me that what Thomas, so much maligned for his wild, dissipated living, has done in this work, is to create the inimitable. This reckless man, so adrift in many respects, created a singular work of such beauty, it seems unlikely anything of its nostalgic ilk will ever be created again.
I recommend this now unusual but not impossible to find movie version, starring Denholm Elliott:
And this exquisitely illustrated book version, by one of my favorite illustrators from my childhood, Trina Schart Hyman:
I bring this recommendation as an introduction to one of my favorite Christmas carols, "Good King Wenceslas," because I first encountered this carol while reading A Child's Christmas in Wales. It is this carol that the young boy in the story (assumed to be Thomas in his youth) and his friends choose to sing while caroling. Although I enjoy the jaunty, unusual tune, hailing from the 13th century, I call your attention, to John Mason Neale's 1853 lyrics:
Good King Wenceslas look’d out, On the Feast of Stephen; When the snow lay round about, Deep, and crisp, and even: Brightly shone the moon that night, Though the frost was cruel, When a poor man came in sight, Gath’ring winter fuel. “Hither page and stand by me, If thou know’st it, telling, Yonder peasant, who is he? Where and what his dwelling?” “Sire, he lives a good league hence. Underneath the mountain; Right against the forest fence, By Saint Agnes’ fountain.” “Bring me flesh,and bring me wine, Bring me pine-logs hither: Thouand I will see him dine, When we bear them thither.” Page and monarch forth they went, Forth they went together; Through the rudewind’s wild lament, And the bitter weather. “Sire, the night is darker now, And the wind blows stronger; Fails my heart, I know now how, I can go no longer.” “Mark my footsteps, good my page; Tread thou in them boldly; Thou shalt find the winter’s rage Freeze thy blood less coldly.” In his master’s steps he trod, Where the snow lay dinted; Heat was in the very sod Which the Saint had printed. Therefore, Christian men, be sure, Wealth or rank possessing, Ye who now will bless the poor, Shall yourselves find blessing.
There are two chief reasons I love this carol. One is its theme of humility and the other its theme of helping the poor, of concern and sacrifice for others, of getting outside of ourselves The song tells the story of a page, growing terribly cold in his attempt to travel beside the benevolent King Wenceslas (a historical figure and Saint) through winter gusts, to offer food and wine to a poor peasant the king has seen and wants to bless. The king encourages his shivering page to walk within his footsteps, and assures him that, as he does, he will find that he is warmed. And so he is.
"In his master’s steps he trod,
Where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod Which the Saint had printed."
And the carol ends with this promise:
"Therefore, Christian men, be sure, Wealth or rank possessing, Ye who now will bless the poor, Shall yourselves find blessing.'
It took humility for the page to walk within his master's steps, to follow him through cold and bitter wind on this errand of mercy. It required a willingness to be led and a degree of trust: trust that his master had his best interests in mind, trust that this journey was worth it. The page was rewarded for his humility, for his willingness to suspend his disbelief, and for his prevailing desire to be used for a purpose greater than himself.
In this season, which we like to think of as a season of giving, the reality is we also can come up against a lot of grasping. Sometimes it feels, at this time of year, that there is never enough: never enough time, never enough rest, never enough energy, and never enough money to do all, to give all, to cover all, to be all that Christmas seems to require of us, or that our vision, our version of Christmas seems to require.
Perhaps that is why this carol thrills me down to my truth-seeking toes. This season isn't really meant to be about grasping at all, is it? Rather, it is about getting outside of our own wants, needs, and aches, to lighten the loads of others. To bring warmth to those feeling a chill greater than the one we face. To bear embers of light to those for whom light seems all but extinguished. To walk with gratitude, trust, and a sense of purpose towards the direction of benevolence, whatever embodiment or manifestation that may take for us.
So, on this eve of the Eve of Christmas, perhaps give this classic carol a listen. It is worth our quiet enjoyment and contemplation.
Consider also exploring A Child's Christmas In Wales sometime over the holiday week ahead.
I'll wind down this post with some of my favorite lines from Thomas' book, and fittingly, they close out his story, as the young poet gazes out his window on Christmas night, surveying the snowy town below:
"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."
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, all. May your holidays be sacred and bright.