Memories of Christmas
Broadcast on BBC's Children's Hour December 1945, and published in The
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; or whether the ice broke and the skating grocer vanished
like a snowman through a white trap-door on that same Christmas Day that the mince-pies
finished Uncle Arnold and we tobogganed down the seaward hill, all the afternoon,
on the best tea-tray, and Mrs. Griffiths complained, and we threw a snowball at
her niece, and my hands burned so, with the heat and the cold, when I held them
in front of the fire, that I cried for twenty minutes and then had some jelly.
All the Christmases roll down the hill towards the Welsh-speaking sea, like a snowball
growing whiter and bigger and rounder, 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 hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find; holly
or robins or pudding, squabbles and carols and oranges and tin whistles, and the
fire in the front room, and bang go the crackers, and holy, holy, holy, ring the
bells, and the glass bells shaking on the tree, and Mother Goose, and Struwelpeter
-- oh! the baby-burning flames and the clacking scissorman! -- Billy Bunter and
Black Beauty, Little Women and boys who have three helpings, Alice and Mrs. Potter's
badgers, penknives, teddy-bears -- named after a Mr. Theodore Bear, their inventor,
or father, who died recently in the United States -- mouth-organs, tin-soldiers,
and blancmange, and Auntie Bessie playing "Pop Goes the Weasel" and "Nuts in May"
and "Oranges and Lemons" on the untuned piano in the parlour all through the thimble-hiding
musical-chairing blind-man's-buffing party at the end of the-never-to-be-forgotten
day at the end of the unremembered year.
In goes my hand into that wool-white bell-tongued ball of holidays resting at the
margin of the carol-singing sea, and out comes Mrs. Prothero and the firemen.
It was on the afternoon of the day of Christmas Eve, and I was in Mrs. Prothero's
garden, waiting for cats, with her son Jim. It was snowing. It was always snowing
at Christmas; December, in my memory, is white as Lapland, though there were no
reindeers. But there were cats. Patient, cold, and callous, our hands wrapped in
socks, we waited to snowball the cats. Sleek and long as jaguars and terrible-whiskered,
spitting and snarling they would slink and sidle over the white back-garden walls,
and the lynx-eyed hunters, Jim and I, fur-capped and moccasined trappers from Hudson's
Bay off Eversley Road, would hurl our deadly snowballs at the green of their eyes.
The wise cats never appeared. We were so still, Eskimo-footed arctic marksmen in
the muffling silence of the eternal snows -- eternal, ever since Wednesday -- that
we never heard Mrs. Prothero's first cry from her igloo at the bottom of the garden.
Or, if we heard it at all, it was, to us, like the far-off challenge of our enemy
and prey, the neighbour's Polar Cat. But soon the voice grew louder. "Fire!" cried
Mrs. Prothero, and she beat the dinner-gong. And we ran down the garden, with the
snowballs in our arms, towards the house, and smoke, indeed, was pouring out of
the dining-room, and the gong was bombilating, and Mrs. Prothero was announcing
ruin like a town-crier in Pompeii. This was better than all the cats in Wales standing
on the wall in a row. We bounded into the house, laden with snowballs, and stopped
at the open door of the smoke-filled room. Something was burning all right; perhaps
it was Mr. Prothero, who always slept there after midday dinner with a newspaper
over his face; but he was standing in the middle of the room, saying "A fine Christmas!"
and smacking at the smoke with a slipper.
"Call the fire-brigade," cried Mrs. Prothero as she beat the gong.
"They won't be there," said Mr. Prothero, "it's Christmas."
There was no fire to be seen, only clouds of smoke and Mr. Prothero standing in
the middle of them, waving his slipper as though he were conducting.
"Do something," he said.
And we threw all our snowballs into the smoke -- I think we missed Mr. Prothero
-- and ran out of the house to the telephone-box.
"Let's call the police as well," Jim said.
"And the ambulance."
"And Ernie Jenkins, he likes fires."
But we only called the fire-brigade, and soon the fire engine came and three tall
men in helmets brought a hose into the house and Mr. Prothero got out just in time
before they turned it on. Nobody could have had a noisier Christmas Eve. And when
the firemen turned off the hose and were standing in the wet and smoky room, Jim's
aunt, Miss Prothero, came downstairs and peered in at them. Jim and I waited, very
quietly, to hear what she would say to them. She said the right thing, always. She
looked at the three tall firemen in their shining helmets, standing among the smoke
and cinders and dissolving snowballs, and she said: "Would you like something to
Now out of that bright white snowball of Christmas gone comes the stocking, the
stocking of stockings, that hung at the foot of the bed with the arm of a golliwog
dangling over the top and small bells ringing in the toes. There was a company,
gallant and scarlet but never nice to taste though I always tried when very young,
of belted and busbied and musketed lead soldiers so soon to lose their heads and
legs in the wars on the kitchen table after the tea-things, the mince-pies, and
the cakes that I helped to make by stoning the raisins and eating them, had been
cleared away; and a bag of moist and many-coloured jelly-babies and a folded flag
and a false nose and a tram-conductor's cap and a machine that punched tickets and
rang a bell; never a catapult; once, by a mistake that no one could explain, a little
hatchet; and a rubber buffalo, or it may have been a horse, with a yellow head and
haphazard legs; and a celluloid duck that made, when you pressed it, a most unducklike
noise, a mewing moo that an ambitious cat might make who wishes to be a cow; and
a painting-book in which I could make the grass, the trees, the sea, and the animals
any colour I pleased: and still the dazzling sky-blue sheep are grazing in the red
field under a flight of rainbow-beaked and pea-green birds.
Christmas morning was always over before you could say Jack Frost. And look! suddenly
the pudding was burning! Bang the gong and call the fire-brigade and the book-loving
firemen! Someone found the silver three-penny-bit with a currant on it; and the
someone was always Uncle Arnold. The motto in my cracker read:
Let's all have fun this Christmas Day,
Let's play and sing and shout hooray!
And the grown-ups turned their eyes towards the ceiling, and Auntie Bessie, who
had already been frightened, twice, by a clockwork mouse, whimpered at the side-board
and had some elderberry wine. And someone put a glass bowl full of nuts on the littered
table, and my uncle said, as he said once every year: "I've got a shoe-nut here.
Fetch me a shoe-horn to open it, boy."
And dinner was ended.
And I remember that on the afternoon of Christmas Day, when the others sat around
the fire and told each other that this was nothing, no, nothing, to the great snowbound
and turkey-proud yule-log-crackling holly-berry-bedizined and kissing-under-the-mistletoe
Christmas when they were children, I would go out, school-capped and gloved and
mufflered, with my bright new boots squeaking, into the white world on to the seaward
hill, to call on Jim and Dan and Jack and to walk with them through the silent snowscape
of our town.
We went padding through the streets, leaving huge deep footprints in the snow, on
the hidden pavements.
"I bet people'll think there's been hippoes."
"What would you do if you saw a hippo coming down Terrace Road?"
"I'd go like this, bang! I'd throw him over the railings and roll him down the hill
and then I'd tickle him under the ear and he'd wag his tail..."
"What would you do if you saw two hippoes?"
Iron-flanked and bellowing he-hippoes clanked and blundered and battered through
the scudding snow towards us as we passed by Mr. Daniel's house.
"Let's post Mr. Daniel a snowball through his letter-box."
"Let's write things in the snow."
"Let's write 'Mr. Daniel looks like a spaniel' all over his lawn."
"Look," Jack said, "I'm eating snow-pie."
"What's it taste like?"
"Like snow-pie," Jack said.
Or we walked on the white shore.
"Can the fishes see it's snowing?"
"They think it's the sky falling down."
The silent one-clouded heavens drifted on to the sea.
"All the old dogs have gone."
Dogs of a hundred mingled makes yapped in the summer at the sea-rim and yelped at
the trespassing mountains of the waves.
"I bet St. Bernards would like it now."
And we were snowblind travellers lost on the north hills, and the great dewlapped
dogs, with brandy-flasks round their necks, ambled and shambled up to us, baying
We returned home through the desolate poor sea-facing streets where only a few children
fumbled with bare red fingers in the thick wheel-rutted snow and cat-called after
us, their voices fading away, as we trudged uphill, into the cries of the dock-birds
and the hooters of ships out in the white and whirling bay.
Bring out the tall tales now that we told by the fire as we roasted chestnuts and
the gaslight bubbled low. Ghosts with their heads under their arms trailed their
chains and said "whooo" like owls in the long nights when I dared not look over
my shoulder; wild beasts lurked in the cubby-hole under the stairs where the gas-meter
ticked. "Once upon a time," Jim said, "there were three boys, just like us, who
got lost in the dark in the snow, near Bethesda Chapel, and this is what happened
to them..." It was the most dreadful happening I had ever heard.
And I remember that we went singing carols once, a night or two before Christmas
Eve, when there wasn't the shaving of a moon to light the secret, white-flying streets.
At the end of a long road was a drive that led to a large house, and we stumbled
up the darkness of the drive that night, each one of us afraid, each one holding
a stone in his hand in case, and all of us too brave to say a word. The wind made
through the drive-treed noises as of old and unpleasant and maybe web-footed men
wheezing in caves. We reached the black bulk of the house.
"What shall we give them?" Dan whispered.
"'Hark the Herald'? 'Christmas Comes but Once a Year'?"
"No," Jack said: "We'll sing 'Good King Wenceslas.' I'll count three."
One, two, three, and we began to sing, our voices high and seemingly distant in
snow-felted darkness round the house that was occupied by nobody we knew. We stood
close together, near the dark door.
Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the Feast of Stephen...
And then a small, dry voice, like the voice of someone who has not spoken for a
long time, suddenly joined our singing: a small, dry voice from the other side of
the door: a small, dry voice through the keyhole. And when we stopped running we
were outside our house; the front room was lovely and bright; the gramophone was
playing; we saw the red and white balloons hanging from the gas-bracket; uncles
and aunts sat by the fire; I thought I smelt our supper being fried in the kitchen.
Everything was good again, and Christmas shone through all the familiar town.
"Perhaps it was a ghost," Jim said.
"Perhaps it was trolls," Dan said, who was always reading.
"Let's go in and see if there's any jelly left," Jack said. And we did that.