13 December 2011

A Child's Christmas

Our last Christmas in the Old World. At least for a year. The first two Home Is Where Your Skis Is holiday editions (2009, 2010) featured music from back home. That fits the holidays away from home theme that we've pretty much been living for the past ten years. Since we're now headed back home it's time to reflect on Christmases not only here in Europe but in the even older worlds of places like Kazakhstan. And for that I would like to focus with what is and forever will be the ultimate romanticized narrative of holiday memories from a time long gone and quite possibly from a time that never really existed.

Dylan Thomas started what eventually became A Child's Christmas in Wales in the early 1940s, probably not an especially pretty time for Christmas in Wales nor anywhere in Europe for that matter. This, of course, points to the romantic imaginings of its author--is there a better reason to pine away for simpler times that to be stuck in the middle of a World War? Thomas worked on the story throughout the war and in 1950 eventually sold a version of it to Harper's Bazaar. Two years later Thomas headed for New York City, was asked to record some of his poems by a couple young women who just created the Caedmon record label. Though it wasn't planned, Thomas wanted also to read one of his pieces of prose. He chose A Child's Christmas in Wales.

The 22 February 1952 recording was Caedmon Records' first release. I dug out my copy, a scratchy, seventh printing version from 1958, marked with the initials H.M.K. and a price of $4.98 that undoubtedly I found at a Deseret Industries in Utah or Idaho or at some other junk shop along the way. I've listened to Thomas's distinct voice--decorated with all the pops and noise of a piece of plastic now 53 years-old--three times already and I will probably listen a few more times before we travel to Austria for the holidays. It is beautiful. Yes, A Child's Christmas in Wales is romantic and sentimental and probably over-simplified but I accept that during the last month of the year these emotional responses are justified.

I know what I think about our time spent far from home, I wonder how Hank will remember these years. My memories of Christmas as a five, six, or seven year-old are blurred and somewhat lost but I know where I was, I was in a part of the world I can call home. Where does Hank call home? I do not know but I'm afraid it amounts to little more than any place with a roof over his head. He was born in Idaho but left after twelve weeks only to return occasionally here and there for a few weeks at a time. I know, too, that at seven he has seen and experienced more than many ever do in a lifetime. This is significant. And important.

I believe in the idea that a place, a home, is a collective of experiences and developmental steps that centers us and allows us to cultivate an individual, a foundation of sorts that might be as located as a specific city or as large and open as the Great Basin. To date, Hank's place ranges over four continents with as many countries, languages, sets of friends, and groups of memories. I appreciate this and I think he will too. I would also like him to know someplace specific and I think he will as well. Soon.

On his 1973 album, Paris 1919, John Cale describes something closer to what I imagine must be Hank's version of A Child's Christmas in Wales than the one written by Dylan Thomas. Here memories are in transition, they are constantly moving and rooted in their movement. The prayers are many; the flags of ownership and walls are falling down. Though surrounded by the same good neighbors, we quickly leave the mistletoe of Wales, eat all the Christmas fruit, leave the remains scattered on the ship's deck, and strike next for the land of Halloween. Above all, "We have no place to go."

John Cale: Child's Christmas in Wales

With mistletoe and candle green
To Halloween we go
Ten murdered oranges bled on board ship
Lends comedy to shame
The cattle graze bold uprightly
Seducing down the door
To saddle swords and meeting place
We have no place to go

Then wearily the footsteps worked
The hallelujah crowds
Too late but wait the long legged bait
Tripped uselessly around
Sebastopol Adrianopolis
The prayers of all combined
Take down the flags of ownership
The walls are falling down

A belt to hold
Columbus too, perimeters of nails
Perceived the Mamma's golden touch
Good neighbours were we all

Uprooted, shamed, weary, and possibly lost, but in the end, I think, Cale's version is the more hopeful. From its triumphant major key chorus to the feeling that though they might never make it to the Promised Land at least they won't make it there together, as a group, as a team, a family. In that recognition there is strength and immeasurable beauty. As an adult you tend to wish to remember and that wish and those faded memories are often at odds with each other. As a child you have no memory, or at least your memories aren't as attached to meaning as in adulthood. A child's life is centered, or placed, around trust and all those people, places, and things audible and discernible in the present.

The narrator in John Cale's "Child's Christmas in Wales" is a child, a child with eyes wide open and full of possibility. The past and future mean less to the narrator than the herds of cattle from all corners of the world who stand next to him and are kind. The narrator in Dylan Thomas's A Child's Christmas in Wales is an adult, one that may or may not remember exactly a past that may or may not have been quite so warm and inviting. But the details are so vivid and crystalline that they are able to invoke specific feelings and emotions long forgotten over time rather than worry too much about exact actions, characters, and scenes. In this sense, the wonder in Cale’s narrator, in his ability to describe perfectly the scene on the boat, fills the gaps of Thomas’s narrator who “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.” The two are ideal compliments. They both make me happy and in my mind they are both near-perfect pieces of art. This state of emotion, this place of awareness, is a good place to reside for right now. It promises only to improve with time.

Happy Holidays!

And while you're at it be sure to pay homage to the skier's best friend, Little Sandy Sleighfoot. The link to the song is now fully restored.

Photo credits:
Running Children
Dylan Thomas LP

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