Today’s song may not make overt reference to Christmas other than in its title, which cribs from Dylan Thomas’ well-known radio reading of fanciful and poetic evocations of his childhood in Wales, yet the song sounds like Christmas. Cale hails from Wales, and that’s reason enough for the title to have associations, I assume. And the composition is elegant—the way nostalgia often is—and full of a warm bombast, which is how our memories of what we once loved tend to be.
The lyrics are a wonder, using a kind of free associative logic that few songwriters have taken to these lengths. Given that the album I initially purchased, back in 1977, had no lyrics included, I spent many years listening to this song in some perplexity about what Cale actually sings. I passed along the song to Kajsa around 1992 and the CD version of the album included a lyrics sheet. Thus we could sing along, and, I well recall, we sang it that Christmas, walking home from a Christmas party in Princeton’s Butler Apartments. So, sing along with Mitch and follow the bouncing ball:
With mistletoe and candle green
To Halloween we go
Ten murdered oranges bled on board ship
Lend comedy to shame
Let’s stop right there. The mistletoe and candles—green like evergreens—are of Christmas; the reference to Halloween makes a bridge back to fall’s move toward winter; the line “ten murdered oranges bled on board ship” is a perfect example of Cale’s way of making sounds matter, while also putting orange into the song, to go with the green (and Halloween) and giving us a ship, for some reason; “Lend comedy to shame” is pointed, gesturing to the song’s upbeat feel, despite its darker colorings.
In listening to the song, right from the start, my ear was always drawn to the fourth line of every verse, which is usually a partial line but which rides the tune wonderfully, with a bright turn.
The cattle graze bolt uprightly
Seducing down the door
To saddle swords and meeting place
We have no place to go
The cattle may be a recollection of Wales; “seducing down the door,” well, sounds a little suggestive, as if maybe one of those childhood recollections that aren’t quite innocent; the swords and meeting place could also be of childhood, while the line “we have no place to go” is one that always filled me with joy, as sung, sounding a benediction for a cozy season. To be at home, with no place to go.
Now comes the part that always smacked most close to home in my teens when this song—hell, this album—was a beacon to me:
Then wearily the footsteps worked
The hallelujah crowds
Too late, but wait, the long-legged bait
Tripped uselessly around
Ever been to Church too much? Wearily, indeed. It’s a tired tradition those “hallelujah crowds.” And here’s the thing I’m not ashamed to confess (or maybe I’m lending comedy to shame?) I used to claim sometimes that I was going to an early Mass and then just “trip uselessly around” instead. This was a particularly apt characterization of one winter’s Sunday I did so (after tripping on Saturday) in snowy, icy streets. The reference to “the long-legged bait” (if you don’t know and you should) recalls one of Dylan Thomas’ greatest poems, a phantasmagoria that celebrates, visionary fashion, the birth—or re-birth—of the world. So, yeah, one thing “a child’s Christmas” does is bring you back to the rebirth of vision. At least, that’s what it does when one is feeling sufficiently nostalgic.
The prayers of all combined
Take down the flags of ownership
The walls are falling down
Well! Maybe this song does have a Christmas message after all. Combining our prayers to end ownership? To end the walls that separate us from the kinds of fellow-feeling Christmas is supposed to inspire? Sebastopol—can you hear that name and not think of Tolstoy and his stories set during the siege in the 1850s? And Adrianopolis? Named for Hadrian, the Roman emperor, it’s now known as Edirne, in Turkey. Like Sebastopol in the Crimean, it’s a military site. What either place has to do with the other can be left to Cale, but the roll of the names is poetic in itself, with a sound like horns and drums.
A belt to hold Columbus to
Perimeters of nails
Perceived the mama’s golden touch
Good neighbors were we all
Not much idea what to make of this, nor how Columbus fits. And I’ve generally assumed it to be a belt to which Columbus may be held, not a belt that holds Columbus as well (too); the perimeter of nails may be the belt itself or what the belt holds Columbus to, and, OK, this makes sense, the belt and perimeter holds our young explorer in place, a Columbus stuck in his home—no place to go—and finding that what really binds him to it all is “mama’s golden touch,” the basis, perhaps, of all we associate with our childhood delights. “Good neighbors were we all” is the line that seems to redeem all those aspects that might be considered less than salubrious in what the song suggests. For there we were, and where we were was good enough.
As well as what the words say, the music has a way of dancing along an edge of high spirits that has the charge of cold weather and the quieter, darker elements that accompany the mystery of the Christmas story, a mystery not only concerning the details of the story itself but of how it has captured so many minds and hearts. So that, for many of us, Christmas is always “a child’s.”