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A Grown-up's Christmas in Wales

On Christmas Day I conclude that it's probably her. I give my niece a large stuffed green frog from FAO Schwarz, which has outstretched hug-me arms and the desperate, conflicted facial expression of a person who has just been turned away from a public restroom on the stated grounds that nobody likes him. The frog holds her attention long enough for her to tug its eyeball and gnaw its foot with her gums, then she dunks it face-first into a brushed-aluminum salad bowl someone has given someone. The frog remains in the bowl until the 26th, when my sister gathers the child and her presents and drives them all back to London. I've seen episodes of Wall Street Week with Louis Rukeyser more touching and poignant.

That's basically it. Christmas has passed. I am largely unchanged. But Fate does grant me one final shot at a sentimental and transformative epiphany. The following day, just for the hell of it, my mother, my father, and I drive west down the vast, bracken-bronzed series of valleys that leads to the coast and to Swansea, birthplace of Dylan Thomas and my father and, much, much later, Catherine Zeta-Jones. Beneath a wintry sun we tour the landmarks of my father's boyhood at a speed appropriate to a safari park full of murderous dinosaurs. We see his house, his school, and the grounds where he used to play rugby, and having used only half of the day, we drive out to the end of the marshy green Gower Peninsula and enjoy a traditional Welsh lunch of cockles and fried seaweed at a restaurant on the cliff top overlooking the beach. Then we leave the restaurant—or my father and I do. My mother, as a lady sometimes will, announces she'll be joining us in a moment.

And here we are, standing beside an old fence, looking down at the great white sweep of the Rhossili Bay sands hundreds of feet below us. The sun is quite strong, and so is the wind. No one says anything, until finally my father remarks:

"That old wrecked ship has always been there."

Halfway along the beach, 10 feet or so in from the waterline, the black ribs of a ship's old wooden hull protrude from the sand. And he's right. They do ring a bell. I must have been seven when I first came to Rhossili, and I remember it surprising me. No one had told me Britain had beaches, not immaculate white-sand beaches with towering cliffs and crashing waves. (My bird-watching binoculars are still in my coat pocket. I employ them.) The ocean was never quite warm enough for swimming though, I remember—though I remember we would try. I can recall shivering in towels on late Sunday afternoons, glum about the long ride back to London, not to mention Monday and school, and looking up at those tall, sad timbers and feeling a lonely kinship—

Huh. I guess not. What appeared from a distance to be the rotted hull ribs of an ancient ship my binoculars reveal to be a group of wet-suited surfers, possibly Swedish or Australian (the hair), leaning on their boards and talking surf.

"Actually, it's people," I say.

My mother reappears right then, waving, and as we turn away toward the car, I experience the rustle of preemptive embarrassment that for people like me signals an imminent epiphany, and then, on cue, the epiphany.

Which is that it will probably all be fine. When it comes to Christmases—and childhoods, to a lesser extent—it isn't so much what happens as how you remember it. As the months and years fly by, my father's ham will likely acquire a richer, deeper, more delicious glaze—or become an amusing disaster. Decades down the line I'll take my niece out to dinner and over wine recount the magic of her first Welsh Christmas in sloppy, heartfelt, occasionally fraudulent detail, with particular emphasis on the crackle of affection that filled the air when she first laid eyes on her frog...

For this is how we are, we people.

Months later, on a hunch, I return to southern Wales, and after several hours in the reading room of Swansea Central Library, digging up old newspapers on microfiche, I establish the following: that it snowed for one day and one night when Dylan Thomas was six, and not at all, not a single flake, when he was 12.

Hardly surprising, this, of course. There's a reason they call it poetic license. The guy was on a mission—he'd actually signed a contract—to tug his audience's heartstrings as hard as possible with visions of lost, unrecapturable beauty. Prudently, he opted to write about the Christmases of his youth, because as an object of universal nostalgia—universal in the pre-multicultural Britain he was writing for—a childhood Christmas is impossible to beat. He then draped everything in snow, because snow is enchanting, and fleeting, and therefore poignant.

And he set it in Wales. Wales, which, with its myths and mists, and its long green valleys full of rain and cloud, and its bubbling unfathomable druidic language, actually resembles a version of the long-gone, ancient past that we all carry around with us in our heads—with the crucial distinction, of course, that unlike most lost, unrecapturable landscapes, you can actually go there.

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