A Child's Christmas in England, Scotland, and Wales
''Christmas was . . . a special time for him . . . in which selfishness was transformed into charity, friends and family were reunited and all brought 'back to the delusions of our childish days.' ''
NOT too hard to guess who these words by Christopher Hibbert describe. Contributions to the British notion of Christmas festivities have been made by Dylan Thomas and Thomas Hardy, by E. T. A. Hoffmann, Walt Disney, and even Bing Crosby (it's true: a ''White Christmas'' is rarely more than a ''dream'' in these green islands). But there is little doubt that Charles Dickens remains the unchallenged ''jolly giant'' who, like the ''Ghost of Christmas Present'' in his story ''A Christmas Carol,'' ''pleasantly haunts'' this season in England - and indeed all over the British Isles.
Like a lank and bearded Good Fairy atop a Christmas Tree, this compelling Victorian novelist waved his wand over the seasonal imagination back in the 1840 s. He has been associated with all the bonhomie - the ''genial face'' . . . ''sparkling eye'' . . . ''open hand'' . . . and ''cheery voice'' of traditional Christmas ever since.
Things change, of course, but visitors to Britain will still encounter festive signs galore. Pantomimes, for instance. Though the disappearance of the traditional pantomime has been continually bemoaned since at least the 1880s, and even the older Dickens missed the ''ten thousand million delights'' of the grand Christmas pantomimes of his childhood, the fact is that modern versions of ''Mother Goose'' and ''Cinderella,'' of ''Dick Whittington,'' ''Aladdin,'' and ''Puss in Boots,'' still play to capacity audiences throughout Britain in the 1980s. From Chichester on the South coast (Spike Milligan in ''Babes in the Wood'') to Glasgow (Ricky Fulton in a particularly Scottish version of ''Jack and the Beanstalk'' - they'd never accept a packaged English ''panto'' up here); from Bristol in the West Country to Birmingham in the Midlands, the ''panto'' survives and flourishes.
Essentially a mixture of fairy tale and burlesque, song, dance, and knockabout comedy, it has a ''Dame'' (a man) and a ''Principal Boy'' (a young woman) and a Transformation Scene. It is colorful, magical, silly, fanciful, and definitely for children.
There may, in fact, be something of a resurgence of traditional ''panto'' at the moment. London offers several this year. The most ambitious is ''Humpty-Dumpty'' at the Dominion, a large-scale success originating last year in Cardiff. Really a fairy-story musical, it stars popular TV comedian-ventriloquist Keith Harris. This ''Humpty-Dumpty'' claims to be the first truly spectacular pantomime in London since the Palladium stopped producing them five or six years ago.
Elsewhere there is a trend back to more modest, often locally produced pantomimes, with no big names, no star-spots, and an uninterrupted story line. Some directors even call their productions traditionally ''Victorian.'' In Nottingham, for instance, after an eight-year gap, the Playhouse is presenting just this sort of panto. It is in marked contrast to the same city's annual, star-spangled extravanganza at the Theatre Royal. You can take your pick in Nottingham.
Carol concerts abound everywhere, indoors and out. They are sung in concert halls, churches, hotels, cathedrals, shopping precincts. Round the base of the 70-foot Norway pine, covered with white lights, in Trafalgar Square, London, carols are sung by various charities for five hours every evening from Dec. 13 to Christmas Eve. This tree is a gift to Britain from the people of Oslo to mark the wartime links between Norway and Britain, and the concerts have been given every year since 1947.
The ever-increasing numbers of handbell-ringing teams in Britain are very active at Christmas time. If you happen, for example, to be in Chester, you will hardly be able to avoid hearing the Blacon High School Handbell Ringers. Not only do these 10 boys take part in a carol concert Dec. 17 and 18 in Chester Cathedral, they also play for charity in The Forum shopping center (Chester has ancient Roman connections). And they do 15-minute spots at dinner dances at various hotels round this beautiful old city.
Ballet is popular at Christmas in Britain - particularly ''The Nutcracker.'' The Scottish ballet is doing it in Glasgow. And the London Festival Ballet is once again performing its version at the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank of the Thames.
The never-grow-up story of ''Peter Pan'' is being presented for the third year at the Barbican by the Royal Shakespeare Company.
''Toad of Toad Hall' is celebrating its 25th consecutive London presentation. This is A. A. Milne's dramatization of Kenneth Grahame's ''The Wind in the Willows,'' a particular favorite with those aged 4 to 12.
A variety of Christmas events occurs all over the country: plays and parties on all sides. Few institutions miss the opportunity to celebrate - or frankly cash in on - the season. Even in Scotland, where traditionally New Year's is the big event, Christmas has caught on.
Scottish nine-year-olds are as keen on the season as their English counterparts. One says she gets so excited on Christmas morning she doesn't ''feel like eating breakfast.'' Another, that Christmas is special for ''happiness and joy and opening all your presents and remembering it's Jesus' birthday.'' A boy says, ''I enjoy my mum thanking me for the present I bought her.'' And all sing the praises of Christmas food.
Christmas shopping in Edinburgh and Glasgow is as frenetic as it is in Cardiff or Leeds or London. Big stores still go in for the child-attracting ''Santa's grotto.'' That red-and-white-coated old fellow finds himself in the oddest places - just past the Hairdressing Salon or the other side of Men's Sportswear. No Father Christmas, however, is placed so unusually as the one in a slate mine in north Wales. He is very popular every year, the one in the Llechwedd slate caverns. The kids reach him by underground tram.
And he shows up again in the cobbled square of a charming village in the Yorkshire dales called Grassington, for the three Saturdays before Christmas.
He is drawn by a white horse and stands in a distinctly Victorian carriage. This is because Grassington goes ''Dickensian'' on these three days. The villagers don Victorian costumes. Braziers in the street cook potatoes and chestnuts. The local baker sells Grannie Lister's Ginger Parkin, made to a 150 -year-old recipe. There are Morris dancers, torchlight processions, singing, and handbell ringing. You are likely to encounter Scrooge and Fagin and Nancy and Squeers, not to mention any number of pickpockets, flower girls, and shoeshine boys. You might even run into Christopher Dickens, great-great-(great?)- grandson of the novelist, who happens to be an organ-builder who lives nearby and last year opened the proceedings.
But can a tourist get a genuine feel of family Christmas in Britain?
Yes, up to a point. The ideal, of course, is to visit relatives or friends. But there are a surprising number of ways to come close. Many hotels offer ''Christmas Packages.''
Take two in Wales, for instance, both in beautiful countryside. The Warpool Court in St. David's, Britain's smallest city, stands on a rugged peninsula in Pembrokeshire. The hotel was built in 1850 as a choir school for the tiny cathedral, but became instead a private house. Proprietor David Lloyd, a quiet-spoken, witty Welshman, promises Christmas guests a ''thoroughly good time.'' He talks of ''ancient atmosphere'' and ''pilgrimage'' (St. David was a contemporary of Ireland's St. Patrick, and is a romantic, significant figure in Wales), of a ''wild seascape,'' of ''open fires,'' of Welsh oysters and venison and goose. ''We prefer goose to turkey,'' he remarks (very Dickensian, that) - though turkey is still on the menu. The four-day Christmas stay features an ''intimate party'' of guests and staff (''a classless society,'' he calls it), an evening of Welsh song, midnight mass at the cathedral, and a dance on Boxing Night.
In north Wales, near the beauty-spot village of Bettws-y-Coed, in a ''lovely valley,'' is the Plas Maenen Hotel at Llanrwst.
Nesta Wyn Owen is the friendly proprietor. She caters for about 40 guests, some of them families. ''We've never been without children at Christmas,'' she says with satisfaction. She offers all the traditional ingredients and adds a distinctly Welsh flavor: Harp music, folk singing, and clog dancing on Christmas Eve; breakfast in bed on Christmas morning. Then a carol service. After the dinner, an afternoon walk up to a crag, with a wonderful view, for those wanting it.
Mrs. Owen aims to suit all tastes. Guests just wanting to read in a corner are left in peace. But that ubiquitous gentleman ''Father Christmas'' appears once more with gifts for the children (tapes of Welsh music, perhaps, and teddy bears for the young ones). A ride on one of Wales's popular narrow-gauge railways is offered on Boxing Day. A fancy dress party rounds things off on Boxing Night.
Another possibility would be to spend Christmas in one of the farmhouses that offer holidays in ever-increasing numbers from Land's End to John o'Groats. Indeed in Scotland, Jane Buchanan, who runs the two-year-old ''Scottish Farmhouse Holidays'' from her home in Fife, has a list of attractive farmhouses all over the country - and ''99 percent of them are open all year,'' she affirms. ''They are family homes to which you are warmly welcomed,'' she adds in her detailed brochure (which she mails overseas).
I thought Alex and Margaret Hutcheson's early 19th-century farmhouse in Inverness-shire, in easy reach of Cawdor Castle and Loch Ness, sounded appealing for Christmas. They offer ''home cooking with fresh local produce.''
''How ever did you guess?'' exclaimed Mrs. Buchanan. ''One of my favorites. They would certainly pull the stops out.'' She suggested another in the south - Robert and Nettie Tennant's farm in Lanarkshire. They have ''Two pigs, hens, cats, and black Labrador dogs,'' and Nettie breeds and trains collie sheep dogs. Plentiful home cooking, too. Nearby are the Falls of Clyde, a nature reserve, golf, riding, fishing, and walks galore. Who wouldn't enjoy Christmas in such a spot?
Additional information: Warpool Court Hotel, St. David's, telephone: 0437- 720300. Plas Maenen Hotel, Llanrwst, telephone: 049-269232.Scottish Farmhouse Holidays, Jane Buchanan, Fife, telephone: 0337-30451.