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  • Writer's pictureDavid Mathews

There were always Uncles at Christmas

‘There were always Uncles at Christmas. The same Uncles.’

Dylan Thomas, A Child’s Christmas in Wales

Uncle Lewis


‘Davy won’t want it green again, Cerys,’ says my Mam. ‘Yellow? We all liked it when it was yellow?’

My Uncle Davy cooks. I don’t mean at home, where he does it all, Uncle Cledwyn being handless in the kitchen. I mean on Boxing Day at our place, where he mixes and bakes, marinades and roasts every mouthful we and my uncles eat. It is awesome. Mam and I scrub the kitchen spotless for him, and every few years we do it up.

Boxing Day morning, Davy comes with Cledwyn, then come Gareth, two Malgwyns, Mohammad, Thomas, and the twins, Iestyn and Cecil. Uncle Lewis? Maybe later,

These are not uncles who harrumph and snore, smoke-wreathed in wide-stomached armchairs. They’re open and entertaining, though these brothers and brothers-in-law of Mam’s do keep the odd thing to themselves. Like which one worked for MI5, and maybe still does? It’s probably not Big Malgwyn. If it was the twins, it would have to be both of them. Thomas, the quiet one? Le Carré would pick him; me too.

Just uncles, right? Unfettered. Not my cousins, fifteen of them, kiddies, teens, and married with their own. We get together in the summer. Deffo not my aunties either. Every year a minibus takes them God knows where. Mam’s never gone with them, and when Big Malgwyn followed them once, the aunties sussed him, and got their driver to lose him on the Heads of the Valleys. Given a pick-up around eight, we reckon their destination is well beyond Offa’s Dyke. Every year the uncles check the bank accounts, but Olwen and them must pay cash. The sales in Birmingham? You can’t expect an uncle to spot anything new in an auntie’s wardrobe, so possibly. But it could be the racing at Wolverhampton, or a meet-up with old flames.

Don’t get me wrong, my uncles are lovely, and I’m their favourite niece, natch. But en masse it’s always a shock to start with. For 11 months our house runs without men, December is all anticipation until, BANG, enter nine uncles shorn of the restraining frowns of the aunts, an abandonment of uncles, as it were.

These men get together just once a year, but it’s like they were not ever apart. Davy doesn’t call for help in the kitchen. Never needs to – someone always pops in at the right moment. Except for Big Mal, they spot when Thomas needs a bit of hush. And the routines of the day, the cards, the first drink, the stories, all happen unprompted, like in a play. Only Uncle Lewis is touch and go.

They sing, of course. Every year, Ding Dong Merrily on High, Winter Wonderland, White Christmas, Silent Night and so on in Welsh, German and English. Oh God, they do sing gorgeous; bass, tenor and, depending, countertenor. Mam and me, we squawk the soprano line.


*****


The basses

Cledwyn. Davy’s husband. An undertaker, but the least spooky person you could meet. A one-man repair shop. Just as we spiff up the kitchen for Davy, so we have to make sure nothing anywhere is visibly out of action, lest Uncle Cled turn off the water or electric to mend it. One year we had dinner four hours late on account of a light flashing funny. No Lewis that year.

Big Malgwyn. A butcher, he supplies the meat for Boxing Day. Big Mal is the can-do of the uncles, but except with carcasses, he’s hopeless, like when he tried to track the aunties. But always up for it, in a Brian Blessed, noisy sort of way.

Thomas. Proper introvert, is Uncle Tom. History lecturer. Great to chat to on his own. Not anti-social, but needs to retreat to the back room for an hour with some worthy book about the past. Mohammad once left him behind, and we didn’t stumble on him until the next day. He was in Byzantium, he told us.

Mohammad. We wondered once whether Dilys married Mo to get a non-drinker into the family for to do the driving. People try to book him when he drops Dilys at the shop. He’s a chartered engineer with about eight degrees, but all they see is a brown man in a Mercedes.

Gareth. No-one’s quite sure what Uncle Gareth does. Train to Cardiff every weekday for something financial. A mystery is Gareth, even to Olwen, but a generous mystery who’s bailed me out more than once, love him.

The tenors

Davy. The cook. Radiologist otherwise. Scares us witless over dinner with tales of what he’s seen inside patients. More surprises in them than Christmas crackers, he says.

Iestyn-Cecil. Always in that order, the twins. Iestyn was born first, though he has been late ever since. ‘Had to wait for Cecil when we were born,’ he says, ‘and waiting before getting on with anything became a habit.’ Cecil poopoos this excuse. Otherwise, they are tight. Each married a Megan, each has a boy and a girl. Both are maths teachers – they got me through my GCSE.

Malgwyn Two (sshh, my favourite). Stonemason, scrum half in the same team as Lewis. Lover of the metaphysical poets. Without Uncle Mal2, I would never have come across Donne or Marvell, and certainly not tried stone carving, which led me to clay and throwing my pots that most months keep the wolf from the door.


*****


At dusk we sing. Uncle Mal2 leads. We’re just right by now. We’ve eaten and drunk – though quality over quantity, the drink, because Iestyn-Cecil knows their wine, and Big Mal knows his beer. Gareth has shares in a distillery, hence a single malt. Very rare. Very couth.

I light the candles, like I’ve done ever since I asked when I was seven. All the other lights go off. Mam opens the door to the outside, just a fraction. Some of us stand, others sit. We know to begin with Ding Dong Merrily, and get more solemn.

Silent Night does it, in Welsh. Distant at first, then into the room Uncle Lewis’s voice soars above the tenors. Countertenor, you see. There’s a place for him next to Uncle Mal2, he is with us as long as we sing, then we are sad, and Mam cries until Big Mal hugs her and me, and starts telling the funny stories he tells every year, and we remember it is Christmas, and we are merry again.


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