Christmas in Wales
[an excerpt from my article, Letters from Wales, which first appeared in The Carpe Articulum Literary Review in 2011]
One of my goals in life has always been to live in a book, or to become one - not in the manner of the ending of Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (which if you have not read/seen it will not make sense but I cannot explain further since I don't want to give the ending away) but rather more like popping into chalk pavement pictures as Jane and Michael Banks did with Mary Poppins. This Christmas, it actually happened.
There is a children's book called Christmas by Peter Spiers which has no words, only illustrations (it is so evocative that words would be superfluous) that I used to not-read to my boys every Christmas and which, despite and because of their slightly patronizing but ultimately affable adult indulgence, I still do when able. ("Such affability and condescension" as Mr. Collins was wont to say of his great and honourable patroness, Lady Catherine de Burgh. And if you haven't seen the 1939 Pride and Prejudice with Sir Lawrence Olivier [though he was not "Sir" then] and Greer Garson, it is well worth the ninety minutes despite the wide and at times exasperating liberties taken with the costuming, story and ending. It is faithful to Jane Austen's classic novel in essence.)
In any case, my sojourn into Spier's book was almost uncanny. I looked down the street this blustery wet January morning - and felt myself in an illustration of his, which depicts a blustery post-Christmas January day in a small New England village somewhere - with the same bundled, capped men, the same umbrella-ed women with tidy hats and (as Dylan Thomas, a native of these parts, said) "wind-busked cheeks." The same sad Christmas trees lay on the glistening pavement, ready for the dustman, an odd forgotten ornament still attached to one branch - a bit of tinsel trailing in the gutter. The bakeries were just opening - their windows casting yellow beams out into the still dark morning (it does not really get light until about 8:30 a.m.) illuminating the tired, beribboned Christmas cakes in their windows, now at a reduced price.
My mother sent me a fruitcake this year as she does every year, a beautiful, heavenly, dark, unduplicatable, indescribable nut-filled cake, wrapped in cheesecloth, soaked in brandy. I am surprised it was not confiscated in violation of importing spirits at the post office but we are friends, the post office man and I - as will be evidenced in another letter home. It brought Christmas Past into Christmas Present and I remembered the Spier book once again when, in my new cherry red dressing gown, I sat down with a cup of tea and a piece of that cake, like the happy, exhausted parents in that book, and looked into Christmas Future and knew that is not going to be in Malibu. We like Malibu - we love it in some ways. But it is no longer home.
I did buy a Christmas cake to serve to others since my mother's cake is too precious to dispense with a free hand. And now it sits along the wizened tangerines on the sideboard, the plastic Santa on the white icing, leaning a bit too far into the cut edge precipice, the holly beside it (a present from our dear landlord and lady) dropping dark berries with the shudder of every passing lorry. There is a lone mitten in the street. Christmas wrap is half price in the stationers, and the chestnuts have disappeared from the grocer's shelves. The shopkeepers have removed their holiday window themes. And if this all sounds somewhat melancholy, it is not. The joy, you see,was having been all this time in and of a charming and innocent book and not knowing it because it has been ,and is, real. Illustrated, documented, imagined by someone else a long time ago, yes, but real all the same.
Looking back, the whole holiday had a Spier-like ambience, from the one night in the year (the week before Christmas) when the shops stayed open (until 7 p.m.!) and the whole town was dancing with lights- until now, the Twelfth Day of Christmas. That night the local fire engine, which has seen better days and is about the size of our SUV, decked out with wreaths and real live holly, drove flocks of children up and down the minute, abbreviated length of the one main street in the town, while the others, excitedly but patiently waited their turns, queuing in front of the pub, chewing on all manner of sweetmeats handed out to them by the local shopkeepers. Looking at those children, and returning their ecstatic waves, I tried to imagine a Los Angeles child of ten with the same blazing excitement over this simple treat, and failed. I understand, sort of. Disneyland is forty minutes away. These Welsh children, had they been born in Southern California would be the same. But I am glad that they weren't.
There were chestnuts being roasted in big copper pans, and stalls selling grilled lamb in buns, sausages, jacket potatoes and meat pies. Two large inept men tried to make popcorn (rarely seen here) in a huge and ancient drum, but they used fresh Welsh butter to pop the corn. We were thinking of telling them to use oil, but we did not want to be "the Americans" barging into their world and telling them how to do things, and of course it burned. Everyone ate it anyway.
The Women's Institute were doing a brisk business in jams, chutneys, buns, rock-hard cakes, cups of tea and knitted goods. (The W.I. as it is known, is the backbone of Britain's rural female population - it is a club [though club is really the wrong word - it is more like a tribe] which does everything from putting on amateur dramatics and fetes for fundraising purposes to making cheese and teaching basic household skills to "the feckless" as they used to be called but are now more kindly called "the underprivileged". Their staunch faces, tweed skirts, fresh complexions, tidy hair, confident, bustling busyness have not changed since the War.
Along the streets, complete in his 18th century regalia, the town crier called out every event accompanied by the mayor in even more splendid robes and a chain of office as big as that which adorns the Lord Chancellor of England, strolling the streets, stopping to talk to everyone. All of the shops, including the bank, served little mince pies and mulled or regular wine to everyone. In some cases, the young children of the family businesses were busy filling cups with wine and passing them round to people (no arrests, no law suits, and apparently no licences). In any case, I saw D.C. Lark (Detective Constable Lark) having a few cheering cups himself so he could hardly protest.
At the end of this evening (which contained far more than I can write about - like a Santa [called Sion Corn in Welsh] in a little hut for all the little children to visit - children, who, we noticed, came away with some hefty merchandise very generously donated by the sweet shops) the Welsh Men's Choir gathered in the town square accompanied by a small brass band consisting of about ten skinny self-conscious youths from Aberystwyth (a nearby town) with blue fingers and bluer lips wielding their chilly metal instruments in the cold night air.
That, for us, was one of the most poignant experiences we have had since coming to Wales. I would be hard put to describe the clear eyes and dignified lined faces of these older men, each with a starched white or checked shirt, tie and sweater under his jacket, and the unmistakable authenticity of feeling with which they sang these old, traditional carols. It was very, very clear that they loved, believed in and meant these words.
The town crier bossily handed out choir books to the little crowd gathered in the square, announced every carol and proclaimed which verses would be sung in Welsh and which in English. There were some Catholics among the Anglicans in the crowd and they sang (as did I) some carols in Latin. The mayor, who is originally from India, made everyone laugh at one point by interrupting the town crier's booming instructions, yelling out: "The next two verses will be sung in Hindustani!"
It seemed that the whole village had gathered in that square. And they sang and sang out into the festive evening and the brass band tried manfully to keep up with them but and they had no jackets or gloves and the instruments were just too cold - so in the end, the last few carols were sung a cappella which was as lovely in its own way.
The ambience that night - the combination of youth and age, the rich Welsh timbre of these male voices - the fainter, higher, lacier tones of the women in the crowd, the crystal clear air, the scent of chestnuts and spiced wine, the warmth (not just put on for this occasion) of the small community, most of whom are related or have been friends and or neighbours all their lives is beyond my powers of description. Suffice to say that it was just one of "those moments" in life when for a few brief shining moments the universe just seemed right.
That short and simple evening was a book really. Distilled experience. Emotion enacted rather than recollected in tranquility. It was Spier, Miss Read, Jane Austen, Trollope and Dickens. But it was also our life, here, now, real. That was the miracle of Christmas in Wales for us.
We were there.
Causes Harrison Solow Supports
Lupus Foundation of America
Museum of Tolerance