The attic of my childhood is filled with books big and small, from counting and alphabet books, to a sluice of books by Seuss, to little books about each president, to books about ducks and bears and little golden-haired girls who shouldn’t have but did and lived to rue the consequences, to books about White Fang and the adventures of the Hardy Boys, to books that never caught on despite their Caldecott Medals. And yet, when I climb into the attic and dust away every spider’s web, including Charlotte’s, the little book I pull off the shelf is one that may not come immediately to mind in the category of children’s books: A Child’s Christmas in Wales, by Dylan Thomas.
When I first heard the title, uttered with a strange reverence by my father on a long-past Christmas Eve, I thought the book was literally about a child forced to spend Christmas in the belly of a whale, which both horrified and excited me. That notion was soon dispelled by my father, who opened up the little book and began to read.
I was dumbfounded. Were these words, lilting and evocative and strung together in ways I’d never dreamed of—were they in English or in some language invented by fairies to enrapture mere mortals?
I looked over at my sister, who just rolled her eyes, pointed at her watch, and yanked at an imaginary noose around her neck. She was clearly not as taken by the story as I was, mostly because she was impatient to get on with the presents.
It was Christmas Eve, after all, and the last obstacle between us and our presents was the ritual of hot cocoa, cookies, and story reading. Each of us was tasked with reading a Christmas story, so the family had to get through five books before we were allowed to open our Christmas Eve present, which was usually a small gift aimed at tantalizing us about what we might find under the tree on Christmas morning. One year I got an eye patch on Christmas Eve; the next morning, a BB gun.
My father continued to read, and read, and read. It was a long story compared to the book I had just read, The Night before Christmas. But it was so wonderful. And as the story ended, with the boy saying “some words to the close and holy darkness,” I leapt to my feet and begged my father to read it again.
He declined, yielding to the exasperated shouts of my sister, but gave it to me as an extra present.
Every Christmas since, including the Christmases of my children, I have read the book aloud and always find something new in it to enjoy and savor. If you haven’t read it, you should. You need to know about Mrs. Prothero and the firemen, and listen to the tipsy Aunt Hannah singing in the back yard “like a big-bosomed thrush.”