A Writer’s Christmas in Wales by Katie Munnik
“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.”
Long before I had any inkling I’d ever live in Wales or could even find it on a map, that line from Dylan Thomas’ poem stuck in my head. Probably the incongruity caught my attention because not remembering when it snowed seemed impossible. It snowed every winter. Suburban Ottawa in the 1980s was thick with snow, every child snow-suited from Halloween on, every yard garrisoned with forts, their walls piled high with ready snowballs.
When I was growing up, that line about the snow – along with many others from his story poem A Child’s Christmas in Wales – was often quoted by my family. It was that kind of house. I’ve heard other writers talk about how reading was their special refuge, their private place in a hostile world, but in my family, everyone read and spoke about what they were reading. Histories, animal facts, cookbooks and novels, all piled up on the coffee table, and arguments were solved with dictionaries. Poetry was just one more kind of story to share.
Only, at first, I didn’t know that it was poetry at all because I knew it from television. In 1987, the CBC broadcast an adaptation of Thomas’s poem by Jon Glascoe and Peter Kreutzer, and after that, we watched it every year. The little boy never grew up and always deferred bedtime on Christmas Eve by asking his grandfather for stories of his childhood beside the two-tongued Welsh sea. Sitting on the carpet in my living room beside the tinselled Christmas tree, the lilting poetry on the television filled me with a sad, sweet nostalgia for a time I never knew.
It’s been thirty-five years since it first was aired, and it’s also the 70th anniversary of the poem’s first radio broadcast, and my own seventh Christmas living in Wales.
I moved here because my husband was offered a job lecturing in sociology at the University of Cardiff. He’d recently finished his PhD in Edinburgh, and we were looking for the next step. Neither of us had set our hearts on Cardiff; it was just one of many job applications in that season of our life, and we didn’t know much about it, other than the job sounded like a good temporary position while he looked for a more permanent post.
When we arrived, the parks surprised me. There was a lot of green for a city that made its reputation in the coal docks. I was also surprised how much felt familiar – like Ottawa translated. Two rivers run through the city, with bike paths, bilingualism, and vibrant multicultural communities. Here, too, the Victorians had played their neo-gothic medievalist games, leaving pointed arches, carved traceries, and canals and other capitalist, resource-extracting schemes. But in the centre of Cardiff, there sits a Norman motte-and-bailey castle, and the walls around it date back to the Romans. Recorded history is older here. An excellent find for a writer.
Wales is an ancient place, and its language has the oldest literature in Europe. Perhaps it is no surprise there is a thriving literary community in Cardiff. It is a comfortable city with good bones, cheap rent, and London only two hours away by train. December brings a to-ing and fro-ing of literary Christmas parties in the Big Smoke, writers’ brunches in Cardiff and mind-clearing walks on bright, mild beaches, then plays, concerts, readings and bookshop promotions and let’s all hope it’s a good year for sales, the poetry books flying off the shelves, all the new novels and the old novels, too, and we’ll raise a glass together to whatever comes next on the promised blank page of the New Year.
But then the Mari Lwyd comes knocking, the grey mare, the grey lady, a folk custom in South Wales. A knock on the door in the evening, voices singing, and there, she is. A horse’s skull in a ribbon crown held high on a pole, she is a ghostly hobby horse in long, white sheeting, a nightmare thing, but you open the door anyway and the wassailing crowd sings and sings, demanding entry and drink, and the Mari Lwyd held up and dancing. She’s Welsh, through and through, ancient, eerie, longing for hearth and home.
There’s a lovely old Welsh word for this yearning: hiraeth. It is an elusive grief, a homesickness for a lost place or time, for the unreturnable. Hiraeth is what the writer Jan Morris describes as the Welsh national addiction to longing. As a child, I heard hiraeth in Dylan Thomas’s verse, and now, living in Wales, I feel it, too. The grass is always greener elsewhere. Except it isn’t green grass I long for at this time of year, but snow. Ontario snow and cardinals and chickadees. Cross-country skiing. I’m learning to long for Canada’s cold with a longing that feels Welsh.
Katie Munnik moved to Wales in 2015, after having lived in London and Edinburgh. She lives in Cardiff with her husband and children. In 2017, she won the Borough Press Open Submission, and her debut novel, The Heart Beats in Secret was a USA Today Bestseller. Her second novel, The Aerialists, was published in April 2022 by the Borough Press. In Canada, the paperback will be released by HarperCollins in July 2023. Her prose, poetry, and creative non-fiction have been published in magazines, journals and newspapers in the UK and Canada. Katie Munnik is a graduate of Queen’s University, the University of St Andrews and the Humber School for Writers.
- Recording of Dylan Thomas reading “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” at Steinway Hall, New York, and reading “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” (both YouTube).
- About the BBC 1965 film “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” with Emlyn Williams.
- The 1987 adaptation by Jon Glascoe and Peter Kreutzer of Dylan Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” directed by Don McBrearty, on YouTube.
- The Bookseller review of Munnik’s The Aerialists (The Borough Press, 2022).
- Wild Goose Publications for The Pieces We Keep by Katie Munnik.
- HarperCollins Canada for a sample of The Aerialists and The Heart Beats in Secret by Katie Munnik.
- About Munnik’s longlisted poem, “Long Sault Night Rain” CBC.
- Review by John Perrott Jenkins of The Heart Beats in Secret in The Cardiff Review, April 21, 2019.
Photos of Wales: Michael Munnik and Isla Munnik.