Sometimes a movie isn’t a beloved family favorite because of its exhaustive or comprehensive treatment of a subject, but rather is treasured precisely because of a narrow focus or its ability to capture a very particular truth. A Child’s Christmas in Wales is such a movie. It is based upon the poem of the same name by Dylan Thomas. While it is a Christmas movie, it certainly is not the ultimate Christmas movie. It isn’t focused on the Incarnation, nor is it a grand tale concerning saints or heroes connected to Christmas. It is a small tale in both size and scope. The movie is only about an hour long, a PBS special, but well done. As was the poem, the movie is a nostalgic reminiscence of Christmases past from the perspective of a young Welsh boy. I let my children watch it twice during the Christmas Season, but not outside of it, in order to preserve the special link with the season.
The particular truth that this movie excellently conveys is the love of place—the sometimes fierce and painful longing for a particular country, a hometown, the contours of a land you know like the back of your hand, the neighborhood and fences, fields and yards that you’ve run through hundreds of times. The film captures rootedness in contrast to our shifting world where transience has been deemed necessary, novelty is called virtue, and uprootedness is assumed. Every man knows that he should love the street that he grew up on with its seemingly unchangeable family and friends, home and hearth, games, toys, table, and food that formed his pattern of life year after year. The movie isn’t focused on the spiritual aspects of the season, but rather concentrates on the familial act of gathering together for Christmas. The story is defined by and set within Christendom. It is amazing to think that though Christendom was already crumbling 35 years ago, it was still assumed and much more powerfully present than today. The shared faith is especially present through music. From church bells and choirs singing in the background to Christmas caroling and hymn-singing at home, the shared faith of the families and town is expressed in song.
The story starts out with a young boy wanting a white Christmas and hoping for a present more fun than socks, “You can’t play with socks… A Christmas Eve present has to be a toy or a book or something good.” Children want to play and hear stories, and young Thomas finds a sympathetic ally in his grandfather who tells him stories of Christmas from the old times.
There is plenty of childlike fun and adventure in the film set to excellent poetry—hunting cats with snowballs, a supposed fire in the neighbors’ living room, useless presents, and toy soldiers who fight back at you. There is mystery as well—young men marching off to the sea for unknown purposes and an unexpected voice joining in with late night carolers match the sense of fear and curiosity inherent in childhood.
If music lifts our thoughts towards the eternal, food grounds us on the earth. Plenty of time is spent on all the special treats for the Christmas feast—hard candies, brandy and walnuts, tea and cigars, turkey, potatoes, and blazing pudding, port, elderberry wine, and iced cake, and candy cigarettes. Sometimes I think I grew up in a world closer to old Wales than to the totalitarian nanny state in which my children grow up. Yet anyone who has loved or longed for a particular place will be refreshed by this movie.
One especially noteworthy aspect of the movie is the emphasis on the wider family. Unlike atomized and easily isolated “nuclear families,” the family which gathers in the movie is a clan spanning different households and generations. It is heart-warming to see the antics of all the aunts and uncles and the fun they have together. “Were there uncles like in our house?” the grandson asks his grandfather. “There are always uncles at Christmas, the same uncles.” Of course, the uncles snooze after dinner, but they also play silly pranks on the women, acting like children. What was taken for granted is becoming uncommon. How much “uncling” happens anymore? How many have left their families and abandoned the faith? How many little familial feasts are dead, bereft of uncles? Clans and tribes are essential for passing down traditions and building Christendom. It is probably not too far to say that if men stop teasing women all society falls apart.
Nostalgia can indeed become a trap. Excessive sentimental yearning can lead to an idolization of the past and maudlin dreaming. Yet Christ has even redeemed nostalgia. In its best moments, nostalgia, or homesickness, and the sharp memories and emotions it stirs, points us to that upon which all good things in this life should lead us to dwell. That which we ought to truly miss and long for is our great reunion in heaven with joy, wonder, mystery, and excitement surpassing even that of Christmases past.
The movie is very Welsh, and very few Lutherans are Welsh. In our resurgent Christendom we’ll shape, revitalize, and discover our own customs, but it is good to see what was and what can be as we rebuild. It is good to see a real, cohesive people gather in the same house over the generations, celebrate the Christmas feast, and sing their carols as they worship their Savior.
1. On to Bethlehem town;
Join the crowd and travel down;
Down the road that leads us to the cradle.
Come all who are able.
Come, come to the stable with
Hearts full of joy as we kneel and pray
Come and see the child,
With his mother Mary mild.
Come along and worship at the cradle.
(On to Bethlehem Town; Welsh Carol based on the traditional Welsh Hymn, Tua Bethlem dref)