A Child's Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas

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A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas.  Perf. Matthew Rhys.  BBC Radio Wales, 24 December 2014. Available till 23 Jan 2015 on


Perhaps more by coincidence rather than deliberate scheduling, the BBC commissioned two separate programmes involving Dylan Thomas’s piece, originally written for radio and first performed by the poet in 1952.  Radio 4’s programme took a documentary-style approach to the material; Radio Wales’s broadcast consisted of a reading by Matthew Rhys, interspersed with the singing of carols and reminiscences of past Christmases by elderly Swansea residents.


As with much of Thomas’s work, the pleasure of A Child’s Christmas in Wales derives from the sound as much of the sense of the language.  He is a master of the alliterative phrase, the adroit use of assonance, and the building up of multiple subordinate clauses to create a mood of nostalgia for Christmas – not only as a festive celebration, but an opportunity for families to get together and enjoy themselves in any way they can.  The story touches on different aspects of Christmas – the gathering of families; the opening of presents by the tree; Christmas dinner with turkey and all the trimmings, followed by the ritual nap as the older family members try their best to digest their food.  Meanwhile the younger boys – such as the adolescent Thomas – venture out into the street to share their presents and make mischief wherever possible.  In the evening the family gathers round the piano and performs their party pieces.  It doesn’t matter whether such pieces are any good or not, but everyone should participate.  Christmas Day ends with everyone retiring to bed, tired but happy.


In Matthew Rhys’s performance, A Child’s Christmas came across as a celebration of the long-lost virtues of community; a way of life long past, where families lived close together and met up regularly.  All the food was home-cooked by homemakers, while their spouses took advantage of some welcome holiday to sleep in the chair and/or drink with their friends.  Thomas’s original recording of the piece is still readily available on YouTube, as well as commercially; he reads the story in portentous phrases, taking every opportunity to stress the syllables in his descriptive language.  By contrast Rhys adopted a softer, more intimate tone, almost as if he were telling a bedtime story to his children.  This strategy worked extremely well, especially when parts of the tale were read as voiceovers, while carols were sung in the background.  The mood of this production was one of celebration of Christmas as a religious as well as a social occasion.


While the residents’ reminiscences were obviously coloured by nostalgia (in their view, Christmases past were infinitely better than today’s commercialized celebrations), they recalled a time in Swansea when the city was a thriving port, and the docks were full of ships from various nations, who sounded their horns to signal in the New Year.  One gentleman recalled the pleasure of visiting the fish market, where the smells were as attractive as the produce on offer.  Now all of that area of the city has been transformed into a marina with a Waterfront Museum.  The old working-class culture has been superseded by the heritage industry.


The nostalgic world evoked by this programme might never have existed, either for Thomas or for the elderly residents; but it nonetheless seemed highly appropriate for Christmastime, when everyone should set aside their daily stresses and strains and simply enjoy the moment, however short that might be.