As the Festive Season gets fully underway, Wales Arts Review asked some of our writers (coincidentally they turned out to be some of our most curmudgeonly ones) to give us an insight into something that symbolises Christmas to them. The responses were varied, sometimes exciting, sometimes hilarious; and even a few that act as good warnings to avoid certain people’s houses during the latter stages of December. In part one we see some classic choices, and some surprises.
I am a sucker for The Nutcracker. Like most people, I was first introduced to it via the suite of dances. And I was not a discriminating child: The Nutcracker Suite thrilled me equally whether played by an ill-equipped high school orchestra or by a bunch of professionals. But I also knew there was a whole other dimension to the piece. I can remember my mother taking me to see The Nutcracker at the San Francisco Ballet when I was six or seven, feeling a kind of thrill when the familiar dances started, wondering about all that other music that sounded kind of familiar, not knowing why. I don’t know how many times I saw The Nutcracker at the San Francisco Ballet, but the fact that it was being performed meant that Christmas was around the corner. In the absence of cold weather or snow, that was as good as it got.
In the last several years I have taken my daughters to see some rather joyless performances of The Nutcracker in Cardiff, ostensibly to give them childhood memories of dressing up and sitting through a long night of familiar-sounding music, but really just to satisfy my own belief that Christmas can’t really come until I’ve heard The Nutcracker at least once. The problem now is that I have seen the perfect Nutcracker, and nothing else will ever compare. Back in 2007 my husband and I took my sister to see the Mark Morris Dance Group perform The Hard Nut at Zellerbach Auditorium in Berkeley. It was a bittersweet night for us – my sister’s long-term partner had died earlier in the year and it was difficult for any of us to summon up the holiday spirit – but Morris’ choreography is so joyful, so ecstatic, so funny, that within three minutes we were laughing, and by the end of the evening we were transformed. This may be the year that I buy The Hard Nut on DVD, to pack away with all the Christmas baubles and to watch every year alongside A Charlie Brown Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas and A Christmas Story; but it won’t match that transcendent moment when the stage filled with snowflakes and the curtain closed on Act I.
At the end of each year, I make a single addition to my small collection of Christmas music. I’ve realised it’s the best defence against hearing the same seasonal pop songs over and over again every time I walk into a shop or turn on the radio. Inevitably it’s a hit-and-miss business, with the purchase just as likely to be disappointing (a particularly dull compilation called Merry Christmas from Motown) as charming (Saint Etienne’s A Glimpse of Stocking LP). But the best newcomer ever to this obscure section of my record shelves was Tijuana Christmas, a 1968 release credited to the Torero Band, and purchased for £1 in a Cardiff charity shop. It is, frankly, ludicrous. A collection of carols performed in the style of Herb Alpert, it features a tipsy-looking Father Christmas on the cover playing the trumpet and wearing a sombrero. It is evidently a cash-in job (my copy is on the budget Music for Pleasure label), although the arrangements are credited to Alan Moorhouse, a veteran of the groovier end of easy listening. I like to think it was recorded in the middle of summer in a sweltering studio in Willesden, its musicians knocking back the Double Diamond in breaks between sessions. There is absolutely no reason why it should be such a wonderful and definitively festive listen, and yet it is. Instead of mining the carols for their poignancy, the band turn them on their head and produce the jolliest collection of Yuletide music I have ever heard. I do not care if it is a slightly tawdry concept; by some inexplicable bit of Christmas magic, it has never sounded disrespectful to the original message of the hymns. So if you’ve reached the point where you want to push somebody under a bus the next time Elton John invites you to step into Christmas, my advice is that you track down a copy of this delightful oddity and start your lunch on the big day with a shot of tequila. Feliz Navidad, everyone.
A Child’s Christmas in Wales is not only one of my favourite Christmas stories, or my favourite stories from Wales; it is one of my favourite stories about anything, from anywhere. It is, to quote another of its many, many unbetterable lines, ‘better than all the cats in Wales standing on the wall in a row’. From the opening line – archetypal Thomas in its tumbling syntactical dexterity – ‘One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I 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’ – to its closing ‘words to the close and holy darkness’, the story captures the unique atmosphere of midwinter as seen through the eyes of a child with a heightened awareness of the natural and the unnatural, and the absolute ridiculousness, but strange lovability, of adults (and therefore the human race as a whole).
Amid the ‘moonlight and the unending smoke-coloured snow’, there is lyricism and melancholy and humour, all qualities that infuse Wales and Christmas and Dylan Thomas’ writing at the best of times. It is a story and a prose-poem and a consummate lesson in descriptive writing. Its similes, cats ‘sleek and long as jaguars’, the postman ‘in his ice-bound boots like a man on fishmonger’s slabs’ and Mrs Prothero ‘announcing ruin like a town crier in Pompeii’, metaphors – ‘Eskimo-footed arctic marksmen’, ‘powder and ice-cream hills’ – alliteration and seemingly unending lists are not simply memorable because they utilise the aforementioned techniques; it is quite possible that the famously painstaking methods the author applied in preparing to write poetry are, when applied to prose, a guarantee that you will stumble across the actual best phrase available. Certainly Thomas’ trademark compounds hit the same dizzy heights as his more celebrated examples in Under Milk Wood. ‘Vast dewlapped dogs’, ‘hot-water-bottle-gulping-gas’, ‘wind-bussed cheeks’ and the ‘tea-tray-slithered run of the chilly glinting hill’ are just a few of the less memorable examples that Thomas in his genius throws away like confetti in a cattle-grid as he concentrates on recalling a time when there were ‘wolves in Wales’ and we chased ‘with the jawbones of deacons, the English and the bears.’
It helps that the story was an integral part of my childhood, my own child’s Christmas in Wales. For me it conjures the same half-past-four-on-Christmas-Eve feeling as Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman; it takes me back to the cramped but cosy living room of a prefabricated bungalow at the top of a dark and muddy farm lane on the edge of Llangorse Lake, to a time when there was not much money but a lot of love and laughter. As the story implicitly recognises, there is no better place to spend Christmas than in the sealed envelope of the past. All families have their Christmas traditions, and just as Thomas rightly says ‘there were always uncles at Christmas’, even now in the Moore household, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without Mrs Prothero and the firemen. And Ernie Jenkins, of course. I bet he likes stories and all.
I’m hoping that you won’t think I’m weird and immediately skip to the next contribution when you learn that what defines Christmas to me is a child’s Christmas concert. Please keep reading. Actually, I’ll rephrase: a bad Christmas concert. Once I know I have to step into a church and hold an orange with a bit of foil on it, I know it’s Christmas. I’m not old enough to have my own children yet (what do you mean you thought I had five?) and God knows I see enough of them at school, but luckily enough for me I have a seven year-old sister who is not only in a Welsh school where concerts are mandatory and included in the curriculum (they’re not, obviously), but her mother also sends her to Sunday school. I don’t mind a lovely little Welsh school concert. I know all the words to the songs; I have fond memories of being given the ultimate responsibility of playing the cymbals to ‘Clychau Santa Clos’ in year two. A Welsh school concert is always going to be a better rehearsed, better performed concert. I’m sorry, but it’s true. Teachers in Welsh schools give up two months of their lives to make sure that everything is perfect, that all children’s costumes are fit for the stage and that all children, even the difficult ones that cry every time they have to rehearse in the hall, are all delivering that one line with excellent enunciation, impeccable intonation and perfect projection.
You know it’s all going to be okay when the year five teacher plays the accompaniment to the first carol as if he were performing at the Royal Albert Hall. You can always see a teacher sitting in the darkened wing of a stage glaring terrifyingly at the children, who belt out song after song with all their might. I can cope with those concerts. It’s when I have to endure the ill-prepared, horrifically choreographed version of the nativity that I really feel like it is Christmas, because ultimately, Christmas is about having to do things you do not want to do. The baby Jesus in a Sunday school nativity always looks like he’s been swung against a wall repeatedly. He has usually been decorated artistically with felt tip pen and sometimes if you are lucky, he is even missing a limb. The microphones are never working, which leads you to suspect that these children have not had a technical or dress rehearsal (unheard of in a Welsh school. In fact, I remember a teacher saying to us once, ‘If we can’t get through this dress rehearsal, I AM CANCELLING THE CONCERT!’ We were six.). The children at Sunday school have not been prepped for this possibility and they do not know what projection means. So now the Wise men are straining to hear at the back and they enter before Mary and Joseph have even reached the inn. Then the Vicar can not find Herod’s crown and so Herod starts crying because his Grandmother has travelled from Worcester to see him play Herod, and he has not even got a crown! Gabriel really does not want to be there and delivers an uninspiring message to a seven year-old Mary (who has not even been given a cushion to stuff up her dress. I mean, that’s basic.) The whole concert naturally falls apart, and this is when we are usually forced to sing ‘Oh Come all Ye faithful’ or, as we did last year, a song entitled ‘He come from da glory’, which we suspected was perhaps not a conventional Welsh (or British) hymn. Then we all light our oranges and half of us avoid eye contact with the vicar when he asks whether we’d like to receive communion. No thanks, Vic, I’ve got a mince pie and a glass of Baileys at home with my name on it. Great concert though, yeah really great. Cannot wait to see exactly the same thing next year when you just shuffle the roles around a bit because Shannon Price’s mother is blackmailing you so her daughter can play Mary. Yeah cheers, have a good one. Merry Christmas.
Christmas in the eighties was the last time Christmas was Christmas. Yes, I know I was a child then, you may argue this is why I feel this way. To that I say, not bah humbug (as that would be too Christmassy an answer), but Bullshit! I can prove this twice. Firstly, that was the last decade there was a new Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show. Surely the heart and soul of any good Christmas, and repeats and DVDs only remind us of what we are missing every year. Secondly, and my choice of golden Christmas moment, the Christmas Number One meant something. It is hard to describe the thrill of competition that led up to the Christmas Number One spot being announced. Christmas day Top Of The Pops (NB for youngsters: This was a television programme that informed people what music to buy through the medium of crap miming and a few scant balloons) was the most important visual event in my house on Christmas Day and never was it more important than December 1985. That was the year this shit got real, because that was the year the greatest living Welsh man of the 1980s was in it to win it with a Christmas masterpiece. Yes, that was the year Shakin’ Stevens was a real contender for the number one spot with ‘Merry Christmas Everyone’. Okay, not the most inventive of titles, but let us not forget there had been three different songs called ‘The Power Of Love’ in the top ten in the preceding twelve months. In the eighties you went for the jugular, if you wanted a song about how important love was then you had better use the words ‘love’ and ‘power’. You want a Christmas Number One? Then, you’d damn sure better use the word ‘Christmas’, not forgetting to make bloody sure ‘everyone’ was involved and they had all better be incredibly ‘merry’ at the end of it. This was a long time before some miserable knob bucket could ruin Christmas with an unforgiving moan through a Tears For Fucking Fears song. To show you how serious this was, Shaky’s record had been ready for release the year before but was postponed when it was discovered that Bob Geldof and Midge Someone were going to put out a Christmas song that actually saved starving children’s lives. Conniving fuckers! Twelve months later the very same was storming up the charts again. But Shaky could wait no longer. Another Christmas threat existed, Wham!’s ‘Last Christmas’, a turgid love song about a time when George Michael and Andrew Ridgley would actually fight over actual women. Even Bruce ‘The Boss’ Springsteen was having a crack with a cover of ‘Santa Claus Is Coming To Town’. Yes, the eighties were that strange. Could Shaky do it? Well, yes and no. He smashed his way through the other Christmas songs: Wham! driving up the chart from 32 to 10, Springsteen hitting number 9, Band Aid at 3, Shaky slammed into the number 2 spot. That’s right; only Whitney Houston’s ‘Saving All My Love For You’ could keep Shaky from a genuine Christmas Number One, a song so insipid and comatose that several people’s hearts stopped just by hearing the opening chords. Luckily, Whitney was not really on my seven year old radar, so it felt as if Shaky was number one and, since Christmas lasted three weeks back then, it felt even more so like he had been at the top of the charts when ‘Merry Christmas Everyone’ rose to number one a week later. Every year since, I have clouded my memory further and Shaky has now indeed achieved Christmas Number One circa 1985. Maybe that’s why memories are actually always better? Christmas memories even more so. What a mad world it truly is.
Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life was famously a commercial flop upon its initial release in 1946. Although the film was widely critically acclaimed at the time and nominated for five Oscars, the film-going masses – anticipating the years of American prosperity and hegemony promised as its reward for delivering the world from Nazism and Japanese imperialism – were in no mood to embrace a holly-wreathed critique of unchecked capitalist heartlessness that hearkened back to the Rooseveltian idealism of the thirties. American post-war cinema came to be defined by the colourful exuberance and escapism of the great MGM musicals, and by the monochrome shadow-world of film-noir, but It’s a Wonderful Life straddles the sentimental good-humour of the former and the weary disillusion of the latter so that it eludes simple definition.
It’s a Wonderful Life echoes that other archetypal yuletide redemption narrative, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol – in that both stories centre on the plight of a local businessman who is compelled, at a point of crisis, to review his life courtesy of a supernatural entity on Christmas Eve. Both stories also end with the protagonist achieving some form of spiritual rebirth once he recognises that human value is to be measured in compassion rather than status and wealth. Ebenezer Scrooge is a flinty-hearted usurer who has to be shown the error of his capitalist greed, whereas George Bailey has run a local savings and loan company with integrity and honesty, his rescue must come from the dread apprehension that his life and work have been a futile waste of his potential.
What is particularly striking about the film, on repeated viewings, is that for the majority of its one-hundred-and-thirty-minute length it is not at all concerned with Christmas – rather it examines how the dreams of youth slowly slip away and fade from view as the choices imposed on us by life rearrange our priorities and curtail our sense of agency. James Stewart’s memorable portrayal of an ordinary, decent man being crushed by his adherence to duty is startling in its searing honesty and unflinching detail. George Bailey’s love for his family, friends and community cause him to stand up against Bedford Falls’ unscrupulous banker Henry F. Potter – Lionel Barrymore embodying unremitting misanthropy with relish – until a mistake by his hapless Uncle Billy threatens to bankrupt him. Perhaps marked by his wartime combat experiences, Stewart is remarkable in the scenes where Bailey sinks into isolating hopelessness, particularly during a brief monologue in Nick’s Bar, when in utter desperation he begs God for help.
Personal financial disaster is not the greatest horror George Bailey has to face, however, that comes when the angel Clarence presents him with a chilling vision of Bedford Falls, renamed Potterville, in which the town and its people have been exploited and hardened by capitalism without a human face.Bailey is made to see that collective degradation is much worse than the defeat of any individual, and with his sense of connectedness to others restored he is given a new impetus to live. As he heads back to his family home through the driving snow, Bailey welcomes the familiar sights of his beloved hometown with giddy delight – even though he still faces potential bankruptcy and homelessness he now sees that his destiny is defined by a much wider context than he had previously understood.
Capra’s movies have been derided by some as ‘Capra-corn’ – but if we define sentimentality as ‘unearned emotion’ then we can reject that particular charge with regard to It’s a Wonderful Life. The film endures not because it provides us with tinsel wrapped homilies about the ‘true’ meaning of Christmas, but because it asks us to consider how we should determine the meaning of our whole lives. It rejects, as a suitable measure, the calculation of money or aggregation of material possessions, and asserts instead that the life of any individual is enlarged only in its relationship to others. In the words of Philip Larkin, the film seems to prove:
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.
It’s a Wonderful Life is currently on cinematic release, it will remain relevant for all time.
This is difficult. I’ve been asked many times to contribute to features by the Wales Arts Review, from favourite summer reads to fictional female icons, and the subject of the article has immediately popped into my head. But this Christmas feature has really made me clarify my feelings on the festive season. If I was asked to write this when I was a child the list would have included everything – the opening bars of ‘O Tannenbaum’, the redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge, Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman, Dudley Moore as a loveable Patch the elf and even the nauseatingly repetitive refrain from ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday’ still was fresh and magical. I do not know where or when Christmas, and all its saccharin smothered superficiality, lost its appeal – perhaps unlike Peter Pan, I just grew up – but lost it I have.
My disenchantment with all things Christmas maybe grew out of the crass commercialisation of every aspect of the festive season – the naked, untrammelled corporate exploitation of people’s expressions of faith, love and celebration. The manipulation of Saint Nicholas by marketing executives from a Greek saint to a commercial vehicle to push their products on to the uncritical minds of children is, to me at least, abhorrent. The emotional blackmail that these corporations exert on an unsuspecting public is truly frightening and disgusting – the tacit implication of ‘if you don’t buy your children this expensive toy, they won’t love you’ utterly undermines the notion of the season of goodwill to all men. And if you are poor, Santa does not like you as much as if you are rich; how else is it possible to explain to a child why the rich kid from around the corner has got more presents that them?
This is not an appeal to a more romantic way of life, or a recollection of a golden time where Christmas was simpler and less complicated. I certainly do not believe that. There never has been a ‘golden age’ of Christmas, companies have always attempted to sell the illusion of a perfect Christmas, with their product at the heart of it (from toys to oven cleaner, ‘Christmas would not be Christmas without Product “X”’) – with our only role in this corporate nirvana is to carry on consuming. I still look back at the Christmases of my childhood with a great deal of warmth and fondness, but there is a gnawing regret that I did not fully appreciate the effort and sacrifice of my parents in creating the ‘most wonderful time of the year’.
Banner illustration by Dean Lewis