Christmas – A time to memoir or just watch "A Christmas Story" on TV

Here's a Christmas excerpt from one of my favorite memoirists, Dylan Thomas. A Child's Christmas in Wales is on my top-ten-to-take-to-a-desert-isle reading list, along with Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals, and Annie Dillard's An American Childhood.

Here's a smidge from Dylan Thomas to cheer your wassail, or whatever:

All the Christmases roll down toward the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street; and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged fish-freezing waves, and I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find. In goes my hand into that wool-white bell-tongued ball of holidays resting at the rim of the carol-singing sea, and out come Mrs. Prothero and the firemen.

It was on the afternoon of the Christmas Eve, and I was in Mrs. Prothero's garden, waiting for cats, with her son Jim. It was snowing. It was always snowing at Christmas. December, in my memory, is white as Lapland, though there were no reindeers. But there were cats. Patient, cold and callous, our hands wrapped in socks, we waited to snowball the cats. Sleek and long as jaguars and horrible-whiskered, spitting and snarling, they would slink and sidle over the white back-garden walls, and the lynx-eyed hunters, Jim and I, fur-capped and moccasined trappers from Hudson Bay, off Mumbles Road, would hurl our deadly snowballs at the green of their eyes. The wise cats never appeared.

(Read the whole text here. More information about Dylan Thomas and a link to his marvelous reading of this at


And Christmas season excerpt from Rocket Lessons:

There was something wrong with my family. I was certain of it. If we were a normal family, why were we on a bumpy road, heading for a week of Christmas vacation on a remote Mexican beach? Had we been bad children? That could not be it; Santa had left plenty of presents. But there was no telling about a father who blew up rockets for a living, and I knew he had it in for Christmas. Our new Hanukkah menorah was huge, while the Christmas tree was reduced to a table-top twig.

My brother Danny and I took turns pinching each other in the back of the station wagon as it wound along a dirt road through Baja, California. We pinched and poked as we passed three-story high cactuses that looked like octopuses with thorns. We needled each other, inhaling sand, riding into oblivion. I wondered if I were in a book about a girl kidnapped by space invaders from her new house in San Pedro and taken to this desert planet. How would I get away and find my real parents? This rocket engineer father could be an alien. We had been in this car since Christmas, 1956 – maybe since the dawn of time, before the dinosaurs sank into the La Brea tar pits. By the time we stopped, I would be a saber tooth tiger, melting in my own bones. That is, if my little brother had not already pinched off all my flesh.

Every time I twisted a pinch of his skin to let him know how much it hurt, he wailed, "Ow! I'm telling. Mom!" – as if she were not sitting right there in the front seat.

And of course she turned each time, her face streaked with flying grit, her burning blue eyes grim. She no longer even had to say it: "I'm warning you ... Stop teasing your brother."

I was by now exquisitely aware of the disadvantages of being an older sibling in this family: no one ever believed me or took my side. They took you to the ends of the earth instead. Anything could happen with Dad driving. We could even be going to Pluto, where Dad sent his rockets to capture space men and experiment on them, as I had seen at the movies. Maybe I was really a little green space girl, or Danny was. We had been in this automobile so long my sweet little five-year-old brother had reached the age of snotty. He pinched me again, a routine he found hysterically funny. Pinch, get pinched, yelp, get Mom on your side. Pause. Start again.

"Mom!" was all I could say to express the general injustice, and then: "Do we have to go to San Felipe?" I had forgotten, with an eight-year-old's erasable memory, that I had asked the same question every half-hour for the last seven hours.

Mom chose not to again try to convince me that everything would soon be Fine. "Let's all sing," said the Queen of The Land of Fine.

She launched into her favorite ditty, one that only added to my general incomprehension of our family: "Hang Jeff Davis on a sour apple tree, down went McGinty to the bottom of the sea – come on, SING!"

Danny and I chorused, "She's my Annie and I'm her Joe, so listen to my tale of – WHOA! Any ice today, lady? No? Gitty up."

We sang it over and over, having no idea who Jeff Davis might be or why ice was needed. Dust billowed into our rolled-down windows. We wished to be at the bottom of the sea with McGinty, anywhere but bumping along and shouting into the desert, "Hang Jeff Davis on a sour apple tree!"

What did it all mean? No one ever explained anything. The purpose of life was as vast and empty as these stretches of sand. I wanted to cry, but it was too hot. The air singed my eyeballs. A Santa Ana wind had blown all week, severe punishment for a girl transplanted from New Jersey's snow-dolloped woods and still missing her Red Flyer sled. We had endured Christmas in shorts, with talk of a beach barbecue after opening presents. Now we were going to vacation in a wasteland.

"How soon till we get there?" I whined, aiming my plaint at the curly brown hair sneaking out from my mother's blue bandanna, as if to burn a hole in her neck. I could see her profile, face turned to the window. Her peachy cheeks dropped their burden of smile. Slowly she turned, and each word was chipped off a block of ice.

"Soon. Pretty damn soon."

"You said 'pretty soon' an hour ago," I persisted, despite our new mantra, Don't upset your father.

"Be patient! You just have to trust me. Why don't you ever believe what I tell you?"

"Because you never tell me anything true!"

Danny, my eternal imitator, assumed it was a game and picked up the whine. "I'm thirsty. Can we stop? I want a Coke. When are we going to be there?"

"Betts!" The explosion from the driver's seat startled us, despite its inevitability. Dad's voice was supernaturally loud for his size.

"Mitch, can't you see I'm trying? You'll ALL just have to be patient." She turned around to us again. "Why don't you count cactuses? Look, there's one with arms. Doesn’t it look like a dancer? You get a point for each one. Whoever gets the most points can help me blow up air mattresses."