“her heart was like a bird’s nest” (Dylan Thomas)

basket of goodness

I am first up this morning. Coffee, a warm fire in the woodstove, some work on the quilt in progress. On the radio, Dylan Thomas reading “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”.

All the Christmases roll down towards 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.

How old was I when I first read that wonderful accumulation of Christmas memories? Probably 12 or 13. I remember that a friend gave me the recording as a gift and I remember I bought a little edition of the–well, it’s not a poem, but certainly a work of lyrical prose–anyway, I bought an edition illustrated with wood-engravings. One year in my late teens or very early 20s, I batiked some small cotton squares with images from the book–the sea, with its waves like commas; a few simple buildings–and made them into cards. I didn’t keep one for myself but wish I had. Listening this morning, I was reminded of all our Christmases here. We always put our tree up on Christmas Eve afternoon after an expedition up the mountain in search of the right one. Sometimes that happened on the day before Christmas Eve and I’d see the tree waiting in the woodshed for its grand entrance. We draped ivy around the leaded windows in our entrance hall, made garlands for the sliding glass doors, and put strings of little lights everywhere. (For the last 10 or so years, we’ve left the strings of little lights up year round.)

Quilting and listening, I wondered how many of my Christmas memories are layered with the images in Dylan Thomas’s wonderful prose?

“Were there postmen then, too?”

“With sprinkling eyes and wind-cherried noses, on spread, frozen feet they crunched up to the doors and mittened on them manfully. But all that the children could hear was a ringing of bells.”

“You mean that the postman went rat-a-tat-tat and the doors rang?”

“I mean that the bells that the children could hear were inside them.”

One year John and I were awake in bed long before the children. We were lying in the warm covers, listening for their voices, but instead, we heard…bells? Sleigh bells? Church bells? Here, in our woods, many miles from a church, and the woods green that year as no snow had fallen. It took us a few minutes to realize we were hearing a wind-chime hanging from the eaves of the sun-room off our bedroom, the long metal tubes ringing lightly together to make a most bell-like sound. We were willing to believe in something more magical, though, for those first moments.

In our house, no one came out to the kitchen where the stockings were hanging by the woodstove until John put on the Chieftains’ “Bells of Dublin” cd. The first cut, a grand ringing of bells at Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin, ushered in our morning as the tree lights came on, a fire was made, the coffee beans were ground, the scent of oranges filled the kitchen, and we opened our stockings by the woodstove.

This year, we are on our own. We were invited to Edmonton, Ottawa, and Victoria for Christmas itself but our travel experiences over the holiday haven’t been smooth (one year one of our toddlers spilled coffee over someone’s new leather coat on a crowded ferry, one year everyone got sick, one year we were stranded on the Malahat until we figured out it might work to follow a snow-plough all the way down to Victoria). Given the chaos in airports and ferry terminals just now, after the big snow fall and freeze-up, I think we made the right decision. Today we’ll bring in boughs. Not a tree, because there’s too much snow to go to our usual place, but yesterday John gathered a huge armload of Douglas fir, cedar, and huckleberry branches. They’re waiting in the woodshed and we’ll decorate them with some of the special baubles and stars. I feel a bit wistful. (Of course.) But the wonderful archive of memories–Dylan Thomas’s, my own– is a rich source of colour and music and even the unexpected sound of bells. I always identified with Auntie Hannah, the one who laced her tea with rum (because it was only once a year), who loved port and sang like a big-bosomed thrush, and who was in some ways the presiding muse of the piece.

Auntie Hannah, who had got on to the parsnip wine, sang a song about Bleeding Hearts and Death, and then another in which she  said her heart was like a Bird’s Nest.

My heart is like a bird’s nest this Christmas Eve morning, a winter nest, emptied of its little chicks, but open to the weather, still ready for the possibility of shelter. I wish every reader who finds this post the richest and warmest holiday, and a good sleep to follow.

Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steadily falling night. I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.

11 thoughts on ““her heart was like a bird’s nest” (Dylan Thomas)”

  1. Sending great love back to you and John, Theresa, for your quiet Christmas. Your words are as beautiful as Dylan Thomas’s.

    1. The boughs are decorated with tokens (one paper Chinese lantern instead of a dozen; a few light birds, including a felt one from Lviv; a wooden star from the Czech Republic), the carols are playing, and it feels lovely. Love to your household, Beth.

      1. My tiny tree has a new decoration brought back from Vienna by my downstairs tenant a flight attendant, made by a collective of Ukrainian refugees. Never forgetting those without a roof, as you do too. How lucky we are.

      2. Very lucky. The Christmas Eve news out of Ukraine so dark and bleak. (I send regular messages to my newly-found relations but no reply for a bit.) So a good time to think of those far away, and near.

  2. Coincidence! Just before reading this, I played, as every Christmas, my CD of Dylan Thomas reading A Child’s Christmas. My favorite ornament on our Christmas tree decorated by my Spanish-speaking wife is a sheep with the words “Fleece Navidad.”

  3. FERN HILL

    Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
    About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
    The night above the dingle starry,
    Time let me hail and climb
    Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
    And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
    And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
    Trail with daisies and barley
    Down the rivers of the windfall light.

    And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
    About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
    In the sun that is young once only,
    Time let me play and be
    Golden in the mercy of his means,
    And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
    Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
    And the sabbath rang slowly
    In the pebbles of the holy streams.

    Dylan Thomas was my father’s favourite poet. He named our country house – Fern Hill Farm – after this poem.

    1. Many years ago (nearly 44!), a Welsh poet took john and me to see the house in Laugharne where Dylan and Caitlin lived. On our way back to the poet’s own home, he stopped on a quiet road and pointed to a small house with a bit of land around it, very modest, and said, That’s Fern Hill. (I think it belonged to Dylan Thomas’s aunt.) Magic.

  4. You’ve had some memorable trips and experiences, Theresa.

    Here’s Dylan Thomas himself reciting his poem, Fern Hill – (“the tunes from the chimneys” … marvellous, all of it!)

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