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One Good Thing: Try reading “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” out loud

Dylan Thomas’s prose poem will make your Zoom Christmas festive.

Snow falls over Brecon Beacons National Park, Wales, 2020.
Ben Birchall/PA Images via Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Perhaps you are doing Christmas over Zoom this year.

In that case, you will need to find some sort of festive holiday activity that every member of your party can participate in. Something you can do at a distance, which mostly rules out dinner and crafting and a lot of board games. Something that won’t be affected by an audio lag, which rules out carol singing.

May I suggest that you take turns reading out loud from Dylan Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”?

Reading out loud is one of the great communal Zoom activities because there’s a clear order to who’s speaking when and you don’t wind up in that awkward place where everyone is speaking over everyone else’s audio lag. The downside is that under most circumstances, of course, reading out loud is insufferable as a group activity. But at Christmas, it’s exactly the kind of pleasantly twee and old-fashioned pastime you might be craving.

And “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” is perfect for those purposes. It’s the right length, barely 3,000 words long, the length of a mid-sized Vox explainer. It also sounds right. Thomas originally developed the piece for the radio, so it’s designed to be read out loud, with the words encouraging you to chew them as you read. Give this sentence a try, describing postmen delivering Christmas packages: “With sprinkling eyes and wind-cherried noses, on spread, frozen feet they crunched up to the doors and mittened on them manfully.”

Mittened on them manfully. Don’t you just want to say that out loud a time or two? Can’t you just see the postmen rapping bravely on those frozen doors?

“A Child’s Christmas in Wales” is a prose narrative, more or less: not quite a short story, not quite an essay, maybe a little bit a prose poem. It consists of reminiscences of Thomas’s childhood Christmases, sometimes delivered directly to the reader and sometimes delivered in dialogue with an imagined child listener. In its 3,000 words, Thomas covers presents (both Useful and Useless), house fires, candy cigarettes, and the ubiquity of uncles at Christmas.

What he is most concerned with, though, is evoking a sense memory of being a very small child at Christmas: the thrillingly cold snow, the itchy wool, the long stretches of boredom punctuated with vicious excitement. In this piece, “snow [comes] shawling out of the ground and [swimming] and [drifting] out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees,” while boys wage war on cats, “sleek and long as jaguars and horrible-whiskered,” and “all the Christmases roll down towards the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street.”

When you read that sentence, or you hear it read to you, all your Christmases will come rolling down the street of your childhood home, too. And then it will be as if you are there, even this year, when maybe you cannot be. Reading “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” is a way of gathering and escaping, all at the same time, in a year when we really need both.

You can find “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” on Project Gutenberg or in hardcover. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the One Good Thing archives.