Dylan Thomas was a famous alcoholic Welsh poet, who died in 1953 at the age of 39. The year before he died he wrote a piece for radio, called “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”, which became one of his most popular works.
I was growing up in Cardiff, Wales at that time, and his story brings back memories of my Christmases past.
To begin, my family was a little unusual. My mother was one of five daughters to parents who insisted on calling them all by names of flowers….Lily, Daisy, Violet, and May and lastly the youngest, Rose, my mother. These women were very loving of each other but had pretty strong personalities in spite of their delicate names.
They viewed each Christmas as a contest to see who could put the most food on the table when their turn came around to host dinner on one of Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day or New Year’s Eve. Thankfully there was no fifth dinner since one of the sisters, May, travelled with her husband Dollar from their home in Devon for the festivities. My other uncles were Cecil, Jack, Albert and Steve.
In addition to being an only child, none of my parents’ sisters or brothers had any children. So, I was alone amongst a throng of adults through the festive period. This was a mixed blessing. I did not lack for gifts, but I had some duties to perform for our guests. Since television had not yet arrived in Wales I was expected to provide entertainment by singing their favourite songs accompanied by my mother at the upright piano in the parlour. The lyrics of those songs are with me still in my mind.
While dinner was not scheduled until early evening, guests were encouraged to arrive mid-afternoon to enjoy a glass of sherry or port with a piece of my mother’s fruit cake that was topped with a layer of marzipan and sugar frosting.
At that time in the day I could escape the house for an hour or so and play outside with my friends with whatever toys we had been given overnight. We usually headed off to the nearby “woods” to play Cowboys and Indians - Welsh style.
Children’s toys at that time were much less elaborate and expensive than today, and in that pre-plastic age were generally made of metal, wood, paper or cardboard. Crafts were a big item then. Paint-by-number sets, model aeroplane kits containing balsa wood, paper and glue. There were Meccano building sets with a variety of nuts and bolts and metal pieces; an early pre- cursor of Lego. Also, small painted metal ‘Dinky’ cars and trucks that are now collectors’ items on eBay. Kids didn’t need that much to entertain themselves back then.
The dinner itself was usually a choice of turkey or ham with vegetables and lots of gravy. After the main course it was time for the home-made Christmas pudding with custard sauce, a popular favourite.
The table was then cleared for a card-game of Rummy and out came the chocolates and cigarettes. In my family literally everyone smoked. At Christmas, quality cigarette brands like “Players” and “Senior Service” were packaged in attractive tin boxes containing fifty or a hundred cigarettes wrapped in silver foil, and these were handed around. While the air at these gatherings was blue with smoke it was considered a harmless social activity at that time.
To finish the night, guests were offered more sherry or port, with cake, chocolates, dates and nuts, etc. Thankfully, nobody had too far to drive and they arrived home safely having enjoyed the spirit of Christmas that night in Welsh Wales. They needed to sleep well because there were three more nights of rich food and drink consumption to go at the other sisters homes.
Dylan Thomas’s version of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” was made into an entertaining short movie in 1987 that is available on YouTube. It might be particularly enjoyed by those who are descendants of the Welsh coal-miners that settled here in the County.
Alan Walter is a retired professional engineer living in Oxford. He was born in Wales and worked in Halifax. He spends much of his time in Oxford, where he operates a small farm. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.