108. An Old Man’s Christmas in Wales
This Christmas has been nothing like the others. In Wales, it was illegal for more than two households to join in celebration of Christmas. I am a 69-year-old widower, soon to be 70. I live alone in the heart of Cardiff. As a single individual, I was entitled to join a two-household celebration, but I chose instead to meditate in solitude. This was not to be. My meditations were perforated by regular messages arriving on a multitude of apps and email from friends concerned as to my being alone on that significant day, disregarding my Jewish ancestry and Atheist philosophy. Still, I love the humanity put forward by Christmas. For everyone it will be a memorable Christmas made different from the others because of the pandemic.
I asked my Welsh friends, how was this year’s Christmas different or the same from the ones they knew fifty and sixty years ago. Well, you don’t have the Fox Hunt on Boxing Day when first time hunters had their heads smeared with the bloody end of a severed fox’s tail. And gone, too, is the practice of hanging your longest socks at the end of the bed to find them filled in the morning with tangerines and Brazil nuts. They all tried to stay awake to catch the sock filler, but none of them ever succeeded. We slept more soundly in childhood.
One of the things that remains the same is the Christmas turkey. My Welsh friends always had turkey for Christmas, yet never at any other time of the year. They all ate turkey this year as well.
As for me, I don’t cook. I heat things up in the microwave. At least I did until the weekend before Christmas. The microwave began making a loud grinding noise, went BOOM!, and its lights vanished without a flicker. It left me with a partially inflated bag of popcorn. “Oh no, what will I do?” was my first thought. I had to remind myself that humans have spent untold generations starting fires in damp forests to cook what they hunted.
It was the first time I had used the stove in the seventeen months I’ve been living in this flat. The still brand new and gleaming Tefal pans, having patiently waited months to serve, came out of the cabinet and were used for the first time to heat up cans of soup.
My Christmas feast was ramen from the Far East (Bristol, England) with Bernard Matthews Turkey Breast Chunks from Sainsbury’s tossed into the mix. What would Christmas be without turkey?
My Welsh friends remember there being more snow in their childhood, which is in keeping with the memories of Dylan Thomas. This year it rained for many days, but Christmas Day the skies cleared and the sun visited. My windows face southeast. Christmas Day is very close to the shortest day of the year. I saw the sun setting in its reflection on the windows of Cardiff Central Library. It was a chance to take a contemplative walk before the rains returned.
I walked west into the retreating light. There is a white, cast iron milestone that was erected in 1835 just before crossing Cardiff Bridge that spans the River Taff. It informs the traveler that Cowbridge is 12 miles one way and Newport 12 miles the other. In large letters it announces London 158 miles distant. Is the reason this old milestone has managed to survive because of The Highway Act 1835, "... pull down, destroy, obliterate, or deface any Milestone or Post ... for each and every such Offence forfeit and pay any Sum not exceeding Forty Shillings, over and above the Damages occasioned thereby."
The milestone does not mention St Nicholas, six miles away. There in a meadow Ms Keogh, my cherished companion, was given a natural burial. Because the pandemic has made me reluctant to ride a bus or take a cab, I have not visited this site in ten months. As I walked on Christmas evening the road that would have taken me there, I wondered if I possessed the vitality to walk the entire distance, there and back, twelve miles all together?
My steps took me as far as Victoria Park, two miles away, and it had become night. The stars came out, and there I turned towards the waxing gibbous moon climbing its high arc from the east. This is how a 69-year-old widower, soon to be 70, enjoys his Christmas. I thought about Dylan Thomas’s childhood. (That I dare to reference Dylan Thomas’s title to make my own for this essay is justified by Thomas having referenced a James Joyce title for his collection of short stories, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog.)
Thomas was entertained by aunts who always wore wool next to the skin and there were always uncles at Christmas. They sang because the television had not yet come into their parlor. My Welsh friends didn’t sing, but were entertained by Stan Stennett, and Ryan and Ronnie - the Morecambe and Wise of Wales. I have become one of the uncles when I have joined my in-laws on previous Christmases. I will do so again next year.
My Welsh friends have resolved a mystery for me. I asked them what is butterwelsh? They had no idea. Yet Dylan Thomas mentions it in his prose poem. So I read them the passage: “Hard-boileds, toffee, fudge and allsorts, crunches, cracknels, humbugs, glaciers, marzipan, and butterwelsh for the Welsh.”
They laughed, now understanding it in context, and they explained, “Well, if butterscotch is for the Scots…”