It is a Christmas tradition in our family to watch the film version of A Child’s Christmas in Wales. The film is a sentimental window into Christmastime a hundred years ago in a different culture, but not so different as to confuse American viewers.
The film, based on Dylan Thomas’ poem of the same name, feeds our desire for nostalgia at Christmas time. We are returned to an idyllic time in a small seaside village in Wales, sometime in the 1920s, where we can experience Christmas Eve and Christmas morning through the eyes of a young boy.
It is difficult to watch this version of Dylan Thomas’ poem and not wish that we could magically transport ourselves back to that village and the warm house where the poet’s loving family gathered for the holidays. The poem and film evoke the smells, sights, and tastes of a bygone era that we wish had not gone by.
Perhaps there is no holiday that lends itself so perfectly to nostalgia as Christmas. And part of the power of nostalgia at Christmastime comes from the permission that nostalgia gives us to remember the good amidst all the bad.
In his poem, Dylan Thomas is remembering his Welsh childhood in the 1920s. Yet, there is no mention of the recently-concluded Great War, what we later termed World War I. Over a million British soldiers perished in that war, and Wales lost its share. Yet, the only mention of soldiers in Dylan Thomas’ poem is of toy tin soldiers that the young Dylan plays with.
Similarly, there is no mention in the poem of the Spanish Flu epidemic, which raged throughout the world from 1918-19 and killed hundreds of thousands in Britain. Thomas would have been four years old when the pandemic started, and he must have felt the fear and the grief that engulfed his village.
So, should we dismiss A Child’s Christmas in Wales because it is historically inaccurate? Is nostalgia just another name for a lie? Or, does nostalgia, even though it isn’t the whole truth, have a purpose?
We have to admit that nostalgia can be dangerous when it distorts the truth of the past. For example, there are those who want to believe that life in the southern states before the Civil War was a time of beautiful plantations and happy relations between slave owners and slaves. Nostalgia is dangerous when it tempts us to turn away from the truth.
But nostalgia can also be positive. I find it interesting to note that Dylan Thomas’ nostalgic poem was written in 1952, not long after World War II and at the beginning of the Cold War. Let’s assume that Dylan Thomas knew exactly what was going on in the world when he wrote his remembrance of a boyhood Christmas in his Welsh village.
Dylan’s nostalgic remembrance of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in his small Welsh village in the 1920s does not claim to reflect the total truth of the era. But the poem does reveal a truth, the truth of two days in a boy’s life as he was surrounded by a loving family.
This is the positive power of nostalgia—it can heal. I believe this was what Dylan Thomas intended when, in the 1950s, he wrote a poem that invites readers to return to the magical days of his childhood.
In a way that Dylan Thomas could never have imagined, his poem speaks once again to a world at war and one that continues to fight a pandemic. A Child’s Christmas in Wales doesn’t make the suffering in Ukraine go away, and it doesn’t pretend that Covid is through with us. The war in Ukraine and the Covid pandemic are truths of our time that cannot be ignored.
Yet A Child’s Christmas in Wales provides some healing to our wounded spirits by subtly whispering to us, “But the war and the pandemic are not the whole truth.” “This Welsh village of the 1920s, that community, that loving family, they too offer the truth—the truth of what life can be once again.”
Watch and enjoy! -DC