Conversation About Christmas
Dylan Thomas (1947)
Small Boy: Years and years ago, when you were a boy...
Self: When there were wolves in Wales, and birds the colour of red-flannel petticoats
whisked past the harp-shaped hills, when we sang and wallowed all night and day
in caves that smelt like Sunday afternoons in damp front farmhouse parlours, and
chased, with the jawbones of deacons, the English and the bears...
Small Boy: You are not so old as Mr. Beynon Number Twenty-Two who can remember when
there were no motors.
Years and years ago, when you were a boy...
Self: Oh, before the motor even, before the wheel, before the duchess-faced horse,
when we rode the daft and happy hills bareback...
Small Boy: You're not so daft as Mrs. Griffiths up the street, who says she puts
her ear under the water in the reservoir and listens to the fish talk Welsh.
When you were a boy, what was Christmas like?
Self: It snowed.
Small Boy: 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.
Self: But that was not the same snow. Our snow was not only shaken in whitewash
buckets down the sky, I think it came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted
out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees. Snow grew overnight on the roofs
of the houses like a pure and grandfather moss, minutely ivied the walls, and settled
on the postman, opening the gate, like a dumb, numb thunderstorm of white, torn
Small Boy: Were there postmen, then, too?
Self: With sparkling eyes and wind-cherried noses, on spread, frozen feet they crunched
up to the doors and mittened on them manfully. But all that the children could hear
was a ringing of bells.
Small Boy: You mean that the postman went rat-a-tat-tat and the doors rang?
Self: The bells that the children could hear were inside them.
Small Boy: I hear thunder sometimes, never bells.
Self: There were church bells, too.
Small Boy: Inside them?
Self: 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
Small Boy: Get back to the postmen.
Self: They were just ordinary postmen, fond of walking, and dogs, and Christmas,
and the snow. They knocked on the doors with blue knuckles...
Small Boy: Ours has got a black knocker...
Self: And then they stood on the white welcome mat in the little, drifted porches,
and clapped their hands together, and huffed and puffed, making ghosts with their
breath, and jogged from foot to foot like small boys wanting to go out.
Small Boy: And then the Presents?
Self: And then the Presents, after the Christmas box. And the cold postman, with
a rose on his button-nose, tingled down the tea tray-slithered run of the chilly
glinting hill. He went in his ice-bound boots like a man on fishmonger's slabs.
He wagged his bag like a frozen camel's hump, dizzily turned the corner on one foot,
and, by God, he was gone.
Small Boy: Get back to the Presents.
Self: There were the Useful Presents: engulfing mufflers of the old coach days,
and mittens made for giant sloths; zebra scarves of a substance like silky gum that
could be tug-o'-warred down to the galoshes; blinding tam-o'-shanters like patchwork
tea-cosies, and bunny-scutted busbies and balaclavas for victims of head-shrinking
tribes; from aunts who always wore wool next to the skin, there were mustached and
rasping vests that made you wonder why the aunties had any skin left at all; and
once I had a little crocheted nosebag from an aunt now, alas, no longer whinnying
with us. And pictureless books in which small boys, though warned, with quotations,
not to, would skate on Farmer Giles' pond, and did, and drowned; and books that
told me everything about the wasp, except why.
Small Boy: Get on to the Useless Presents.
Self: On Christmas Eve I hung at the foot of my bed Bessie Bunter's black stocking,
and always, I said, I would stay awake all the moonlit, snow-lit night to hear the
roof-alighting reindeer and see the hollied boot descend through soot. But soon
the sand of the snow drifted into my eyes, and though I stared towards the fireplace
and around the flickering room where the black sack-like stocking hung, I was asleep
before the chimney trembled and the room was red and white with Christmas. But
in the morning, though no snow melted on the bedroom floor, the stocking bulged
and brimmed: press it, it squeaked like a mouse-in-a-box; it smelt of tangerine;
a furry arm lolled over, like the arm of a kangaroo out of its mother's belly; squeeze
it hard in the middle and something squelched; squeeze it again -- squelch again.
Look out of the frost-scribbled window: on the great loneliness of the small hill,
a blackbird was silent in the snow.
Small Boy: Were there any sweets?
Self: Of course there were sweets. It was the marshmallows that squelched; hard-boileds,
toffee, fudge and all-sorts, crunches, cracknel, humbugs, glaciers, and marzipan
and butter-welsh for the Welsh. And troops of bright tin soldiers who, if they would
not fight, could always run. And Snakes-and-Families and Happy Ladders. And Easy
Hobbi-Games for Little Engineers, complete with Instructions. Oh, easy for Leonardo!
And a whistle to make the dogs bark to wake up the old man next door to make him
beat on the wall with his stick to shake our picture off the wall. And a packet
of cigarettes: you put one in your mouth and you stood at the corner of the street
and you waited for hours, in vain, for an old lady to scold you for smoking a cigarette
and then, with a smirk, you ate it. And, last of all, in the toe of the stocking,
sixpence like a silver corn. And then downstairs for breakfast under the balloons!
Small Boy: Were there Uncles, like in our house?
Self: There are always Uncles at Christmas. The same Uncles. And on Christmas mornings,
with dog-disturbing whistle and sugar fags, I would scour the swathed town for the
news of the little world, and find always a dead bird by the white Bank or by the
deserted swings: perhaps a robin, all but one of his fires out, and that fire still
burning on his breast. Men and women wading and scooping back from church or chapel,
with taproom noses and wind-smacked cheeks, all albinos, huddled their stiff black
jarring feathers against the irreligious snow. Mistletoe hung from the gas in all
the front parlours; there was sherry and walnuts and bottled beer and crackers by
the dessert spoons; and cats in their fur-abouts watched the fires; and the high-heaped
fires crackled and spat, all ready for the chestnuts and the mulling pokers. Some
few large men sat in the front parlours, without their collars, Uncles almost certainly,
trying their new cigars, holding them out judiciously at arm's length, returning
them to their mouths, coughing, then holding them out again as though waiting for
the explosion; and some few small aunts, not wanted in the kitchen, nor anywhere
else for that matter, sat on the very edges of their chairs, poised and brittle,
afraid to break, like faded cups and saucers. Not many those mornings trod the piling
streets: an old man always, fawn-bowlered, yellow-gloved, and, at this time of year,
with spats of snow, would take his constitutional to the white bowling-green, and
back, as he would take it wet or fine on Christmas Day or Doomsday...
Small Boy: Why didn't you go home for Christmas dinner?
Self: Oh, but I did, I always did. I would be slap-dashing home, the gravy smell
of the dinners of others, the bird smell, the brandy, the pudding and mince, weaving
up my nostrils, when out of a snow-clogged side-lane would come a boy the spit of
myself, with a pink-tipped cigarette and the violet past of a black eye, cocky as
a bullfinch, leering all to himself. I hated him on sight and sound, and would be
about to put my dog-whistle to my lips and blow him off the face of Christmas when
suddenly he, with a violent wink, put his whistle to his lips and blew so stridently,
so high, so exquisitely loud, that gobbling faces, their cheeks bulged with goose,
would press against their tinselled windows, the whole length of the white echoing
Small Boy: What did you have for dinner?
Self: Turkey and blazing pudding.
Small Boy: Was it nice?
Self: It was not made on earth.
Small Boy: What did you do after dinner?
Self: The Uncles sat in front of the fire, took off their collars, loosened all
buttons, put their large moist hands over their watch-chains, groaned a little,
and slept. Mothers, aunts, and sisters scuttled to and fro, bearing tureens. The
dog was sick. Auntie Bessie had to have three aspirins, but Auntie Hannah, who liked
port, stood in the middle of the snowbound backyard, singing like a big-bosomed
thrush. I would blow up balloons to see how big they would blow up to; and, when
they burst, which they all did, the Uncles jumped and rumbled. In the rich and heavy
afternoon, the Uncles breathing like dolphins and the snow descending, I would sit
in the front room, among festoons and Chinese lanterns, and nibble at dates, and
try to make a model man-o'-war, following the Instructions for Little Engineers,
and produce what might be mistaken for a seagoing tram car. And then, at Christmas
tea, the recovered Uncles would be jolly over their mince-pies; and the great iced
cake loomed in the center of the table like a marble grave. Auntie Hannah laced
her tea with rum, because it was only once a year. And in the evening, there was
Music. An uncle played the fiddle, a cousin sang "Cherry Ripe," and another uncle
sang "Drake's Drum." It was very warm in the little house. Auntie Hannah, who had
got on to the parsnip wine, sang a song about Rejected Love, and Bleeding Hearts,
and Death, and then another in which she said that her Heart was like a Bird's Nest;
and then everybody laughed again, and then I went to bed. Looking through my bedroom
window, out into the moonlight and the flying, unending, smoke-coloured snow, 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
Small Boy: But it all sounds just like an ordinary Christmas.
Self: It was.
Small Boy: But Christmas when you were a boy wasn't any different to Christmas now.
Self: It was, it was.
Small Boy: Why was Christmas different then?
Self: I mustn't tell you.
Small Boy: Why mustn't you tell me? Why is Christmas different for me?
Self: I mustn't tell you.
Small Boy: Why can't Christmas be the same for me as it was for you when you were
Self: I mustn't tell you. I mustn't tell you because it is Christmas now.