At the beginning of my favorite Ian McEwan novel, Black Dogs, the narrator, an orphan, admits to a habit of appropriating other people's families. While I never felt the need to insinuate myself into someone else's nest, I will admit to the occasional appropriation of other people's family traditions. My favorite instance of this took place many years ago at Xmas. Now you have to understand, Christmas in the house I grew up in was traditional to the point of being hackneyed. On Christmas morning we opened presents and ate too much sugar. That night, on our way to my grandparents' for Christmas dinner, we sang Over the River and Through the Woods. And the next day, predictably, we suffered the blahs. When I met the woman who would become my wife, the traditions observed by her family struck me as much more interesting and original ... and far less likely to induce diabetic coma. While the Peak family tree was decorated with sugar canes and tinsel, theirs was covered with hand-threaded strands of cranberries and popcorn. While we sat around a TV each Xmas and watched Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, they sat around a fire and read A Child's Christmas in Wales.
But there was a problem. Having somehow convinced this stunning redhead to like me; I wasn't about to admit that the man she'd fallen in love with, this fellow who claimed to be a writer, had never even read Dylan Thomas's most famous work. So when she suggested during our first Xmas together that we take turns reading the thing aloud, I tossed off some comment about it being a lot of sentimental piffle. But stunning redheads have a way of getting what they want. Protesting all the way, I reluctantly opened the little book she'd given me, read a few lines, and was instantly enthralled. For thirty-seven years now, every December, Melissa and I have read A Child's Christmas in Wales together, and its rhythms and language have long since become a part of my own. This past summer I even managed to work a reference to it into a column about Frederick Douglass of all people! (I'm pretty sure Talbot County's most famous native son would have rather liked that.) Thomas's prose/poem is a movable feast. Read it year in and year out, come to love it as Melissa and I have, and you will find it leaping to your verbal aid in the most unlikely of situations.
It will also leap to the aid of your children, especially your male children. Scientific studies consistently find American boys now trail behind girls in reading skills by more than a year and a half. Experts point to this when explaining the growing gap between male and female college graduates (60% of last year's bachelor's degrees went to girls). A Child's Christmas in Wales appeals to everyone, old and young, male and female, but it especially appeals to boys, for it captures all that boys love, all that sets them apart from the strange world of grown-ups and grown-up concerns they find themselves inhabiting. On Monday night, December 16, at 6:30 p.m., in the Easton library, and again on Friday afternoon, December 20, at 2:00 p.m., in the St. Michaels branch, Melissa and I will give a reading of this most human, humane, and universal of holiday writings. We invite you to join us ... and to consider making our family tradition yours.