One Christmas was so much like another…. so begins Dylan Thomas’ magical, joyful reminiscence of a childhood Christmas, when he was young and there were still wolves in Wales. The story begins one snowy Christmas Eve with Thomas and his friends snowballing the village cats (don’t worry, the cats outsmart the young boys) before concluding, with much singing and parsnip wine, in a family-filled house on Christmas night. Whether it’s true or not becomes irrelevant. The tale wouldn’t pass any level of peer review: wolves became extinct in Wales in the 1600s and Swansea is not known for its snowfall, let alone six or twelve days of it.
Thomas knows this, his easy narrative is not dependent on accuracy. We choose the story to be true because it allows us to time-travel to the Christmases we all had − or would like to have had – and it lends credence to our own recollections of Christmases long, long ago; when it always snowed, when there was always a sixpence from Old Saint Nick in the toe of our stockings, and where our own Auntie Hannah would lace her tea with rum, because it was only once a year. But in 2020, it’s beginning to look a lot like this Christmas will not be so much like any other.
This Christmas a new creature, more frightening than any wolf, is prowling Wales and the world. Insidious, silent, ubiquitous; its prey are given no warning and must be on constant guard. The new SARS-CoV-2 variant, believed to be up to 70% more transmissible than the previous variant of the virus, is proving more efficient than its predecessor at infecting children1. Despite early reassurances that the new variant does not cause more severe disease and that the coming vaccines will not be less effective against it2, 3 concern about the SARS-CoV-2 variant was so great that lockdowns were extended and festivities further curtailed. Christmas day was to include one meeting outdoors with one other person, preferably not Grandma. There were no school nativity plays, no family parties and − unheard of in Wales − no gathering together to sing. Singing, like rugby, is everywhere in Wales. In his novel about a Welsh family and the south Wales mining community in which they lived4, Richard Llewellyn writes “singing is in my people as sight is in the eye”. You only need to hear 70 000+ Welsh voices belt out the sacred Calon Lân (in English “a Pure Heart”), a prayer for serenity sung to spur the Welshmen to hammer their opponents, at the Principality Stadium on any match day to witness this.
The message this season was stay home, control the virus, save lives. A necessary message that was heard across the country. The New Year brings concerns about returning to school. Children in Wales are not sure yet when they will return to the classroom. It is even possible that children may be greeted at their school gates by the military; soldiers deployed with an arsenal of swabs and test tubes, there to combat an ambush predator no-one can see. But, like an ambush predator, the virus cannot outrun its prey over long distances. For this reason we must continue to stay apart to help control the virus and save lives. Virus genomic surveillance is ongoing to gain a better understanding of how this particular variant, and no doubt many other mutations to come, will behave but there is nothing yet to suggest the new variant is able to circumvent the wash hands, cover face and maintain a two-metre space guidelines3. We must not succumb to pandemic fatigue and must continue to observe these life-saving rules, to do what we can to minimise risk, save lives and protect healthcare professionals and frontline workers. The virus is still killing people, we are not safe yet.
Thus a child’s Christmas in Wales 2020 could be remembered as a solitary affair of separation, sanitization and mask-wearing. But so much more than that happened. Children’s memories of this Christmas will include recollections of how people learned to work apart but somehow together to help loved ones and strangers alike- how right it is to care for each other and what was achieved when we did. The coronavirus pandemic highlighted food poverty in the UK and across the world. In Wales the peoples’ response to this was evidenced by foodbank collection points in supermarkets overflowing with donations. Families and communities proved they loved and respected each other enough to stay apart. It wasn’t as hard as we feared; the potential cost of not doing so was far, far greater. Government and social change organisations are uniting to address societal issues like homelessness, health disparities and digital poverty as well as stepping up to address wider issues like sustainable development and climate change. The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine5, hailed “the winning formula” in preventing COVID-19, is now approved by the UK Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency6. Data soon to be published will show the vaccine should be effective against the highly transmissible new strain of the virus and the vaccine roll-out is slated for 4th January, with the vaccine becoming available to millions in the next few weeks. Until then we must continue to observe the social distance guidelines. 2020 exposed us, often for the first time, to the life-limiting problems faced by real people. It also gave us the opportunity to help resolve them. The Principality Stadium, turned into the Dragon’s Heart Hospital in April 2020 to help the NHS, will see Wales return for the Six Nations in February. There will still not be any singing in the stands, but the myriad prayers made in the close and holy darkness for a fairer, healthier world are being answered in Christmas 2020.
With very best wishes for a safe, healthy and happy 2021. If you haven’t read “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” by Dylan Thomas, treat yourself to it. You deserve it, and … you’re very welcome ????
- Mahase E. Covid-19: What have we learnt about the new variant in the UK? BMJ 2020;371: m4944
- Department of Health and Social Care and The Rt. Hon Matt Hancock MP. 14th December 2020. Retrieved from www.gov.uk.
- Professor Sharon Peacock, Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium and Department of Public Health and Microbiology, University of Cambridge. 22nd December 2020.
- How Green Was My Valley, Richard Llewellyn, 1939.
- AZD1222 vaccine met primary efficacy endpoint in preventing COVID-19, 23 November 2020 07:00 GMT. Retrieved from www.astrazeneca.com.
- Department of Health and Social Care, 30 December 2020, Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccine authorised by UK medicines regulator. Retrieved from www.gov.uk.