Thirty years ago, almost exactly—it was 1990 and even in late November—I attended the Christmas tree lighting ceremony in the small Welsh town of Carmarthen. It wasn’t something I’d planned, although it was my second time in Carmarthen so I had a slightly better idea what I was doing than I’d had the first time. The first time, on my pilgrimage to the home of Dylan Thomas, I’d set out from Grantham, England early on a sunny Saturday morning and ended up in Carmarthen in a rainstorm in the dark about twelve hours later. After wandering the streets for about another hour while eating some fish and chips I met a couple of guys coming out of a pub. I explained that I was lost and, having finished my plaice, I was looking for a place to spend the night.
“Well pilgrim,” said one of the guys, doing the worst John Wayne impersonation I’ve ever heard, “it sure does sound like you’re not from around here.” And then they directed me to the Old Priory Guest House which, I’m happy to see, is still running, and probably still has the room where I stayed that looked out over a cemetery, and has also added a website which they didn’t have when I stayed there.
The second time I set out from Grantham early on a sunny Friday morning and arrived in Carmarthen in the cloudy afternoon and caught a rickety bus to Laugharne, where Dylan Thomas spent his last years and wrote his best poems, and where I had a pint at his regular pub, which now has a website which it didn’t have when he drank there, and visited his grave. Then, in the dark, I caught the last rickety bus of the night back to Carmarthen and, on my way to the same fish and chips place from my previous trip, I joined an enormous crowd. The mayor was on a dais at the town center announcing the beginning of the Christmas season. Then he flipped a switch and the Christmas tree and lights all around lit up. Everyone cheered and then we milled around and I think mulled wine was handed around, and I got to shake hands with the mayor, and his John Wayne impersonation was pretty good, but that’s another story.
The unplanned nature of it—for me, anyway; I’m pretty sure the people of Carmarthen put a lot of work and planning into it—made it special, but someday I’d like to go back. Maybe I’ll even plan it, but this year they’ve cancelled the big events. It’s sad but it’s still the right decision, and is the right one not just for Carmarthen, and will be part of the history of the area. Since I couldn’t remember the name of the mayor I shook hands with I went looking and found a list of Carmarthen mayors dating back to around 1300. That’s more than seven hundred Christmases, and I’m sure they’ve had their ups and downs.
Maybe next year, pilgrims.