Christmas markets on Working Street. Photo: Daisy Graham-Brown.

Christmas in Cardiff: Celebrating through the years

Tales from the city’s past, present and Christmas yet to come

I GET called a Scrooge at this time of year. It’s not because I’m frugal with money – my bank balance will vouch for this – but it’s because I can be a bit cynical about Christmas, a bit “bah humbug” about it all.

Nevertheless, 2021 will be my first Christmas in Cardiff and, if ever there’s a time to change, then perhaps it will be alongside a change of scenery – and some ghosts.

In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge (AKA the original Grinch) is visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Yet to Come who help to change his miserable ways. So, in the spirit of Christmas spent in a new city, let’s welcome our first ghost.

Cardiff of Christmas Past

Grandpa kept chickens and so on Christmas morning we were each allowed an egg – which was a real treat!

Christmas lights at the end of St Mary Street in 1964. Photo: WalesOnline.

“Christmas,” says Yvonne Bennett and then pauses, looking down at her dog, Skeeter, who is sitting on her lap looking back up at her.

“It wasn’t like it is now, you didn’t have dozens of toys and there were lots of handmade things. You couldn’t get toys in the war years.”

Mrs Bennett was born in 1937 and grew up in Grangetown during the Second World War. We’re sitting in her Caerphilly home on a rainy Saturday afternoon eating lemon drizzle cake while she recollects her childhood Christmases.

“I had a doll which was taken off me a couple of days before Christmas and she was washed and made to look nice. Dad would repaint the lips and then my mum would make this lovely dress for her,” she says.

“Every year, the same doll would come back, but it was dressed in a different outfit – and I was thrilled to bits! I didn’t feel hard done by, because that was all I knew.”

Children would also get a stocking filled with an orange, an apple, nuts and maybe some pencils, Mrs Bennett tells me.

Her family would go to chapel on Christmas Day and later they would come back home to play games and eat a dinner of seasonal vegetables and maybe a small bit of chicken or pork.

“Grandpa kept chickens and so on Christmas morning we were each allowed an egg – which was a real treat,” says Mrs Bennett.

“Even though the war was going on, I honestly don’t remember Christmas being a miserable time. I think the grown-ups made a real effort to make it a happy time.”

Yvonne Bennett with her dog, Skeeter, in their Caerphilly home.
Mrs Bennett describes the games her family would play on Christmas Day.

Mike Crocker was born in 1952 in the city’s lost district of Newtown – known then as Little Ireland – and tells me that although money was tight for his family, Christmas was full of fond memories for him.

“In those days, working class kids didn’t expect a present but you usually had a little something,” he says.

“The best present you could get was a bike, but few kids had a new one. I had a bike one year, a second-hand one that my old man put a new bell on and painted over at the Dry Dock.

The toy department of the Cardiff Co-operative Society on St Mary Street in 1951. Photo: WalesOnline.

“On Christmas morning, all the kids went out to see what other kids had. If someone had a bike or a dolly pram everyone would be trying to get a hand on it.

“Little kids would play with their new marbles in the gutters and other kids would play with their cap guns and play swords.”

Tina Jones, born in Grangetown in 1967, remembers the importance of Cardiff’s markets in her family traditions.

“My sister and I would run up to Cardiff market with our Dad every Christmas Eve for an early present. We would be given an amount we could spend and then have to run around and pick something before the market closed,” she says.

“Then it was a quick march to Mill Lane market to get my mum the biggest bunch of flowers we could afford – we usually bagged a bargain as it was so close to closing time on Christmas Eve!”

Cardiff of Christmas Present

It would difficult to talk about present day Christmas in Cardiff without mentioning a third C-word, wouldn’t it?

Covid is still the dreaded guest at everyone’s alleged Christmas parties, and yet walking through Cardiff city centre – lined with market stalls, carol singers and last-minute shoppers – you’d be hard-pressed to know it.

Cardiff Christmas Market, Working Street, which closed early in December 2020 due to coronavirus restrictions. Photo: Daisy Graham-Brown.

Away from the hubbub, though, many are feeling the same anxiety about Christmas as they felt last year, especially in light of the new variant.

“I’ve just cancelled a trip I was supposed to be making to London because I just don’t feel like it’s safe,” says Pentywn councillor Emma Sandrey.

“At this point in time I don’t have many plans for Christmas other than having dinner with my parents on Christmas Day, but even that really depends on how the current situation develops and what guidelines are announced,” she says.

Morgan Arcade, built in 1896. Photo: Daisy Graham-Brown.
Heofon Light Maze in St John’s Garden. This is the first year Ben Busche’s installation has come to Wales. Photo: Daisy Graham-Brown.

Allison Vale, 54, who lives in Roath, has similar concerns:

“This Christmas we’re so determined to be able to have family come stay that we’re actually isolating now in the 10 days leading up to Christmas as much as we feasibly can,” she says.

“I’ve cancelled getting together with friends this side of Christmas just in case, especially since we haven’t all been able to get boosters yet.”

Access to vaccines, new regulations and everyone’s individual sense of safety will determine what kind of Christmas we have this year but, as councillor Sandrey says:

“We’ve just got to try to do the right thing now which will mean we’ll hopefully have more Christmases together in the future.”

Cardiff of Christmas Yet to Come

“Creating a people-centred, sustainable city demands a radical change of heart.

Cardiff’s favourite time traveller was unfortunately not available to whisk me away into the future for this part. Instead, I thought long and hard on how to put a Christmas spin on what feels to me like a very uncertain future.

Christmas tree in Central Square, a site of huge redevelopment in Cardiff. Photo: Daisy Graham-Brown.

Something that Cardiff Civic Society has written in its recently published document, Our Vision for Cardiff, stood out to me.

It says: “A truly modern city, one that is fit for future challenges, must put the needs of its citizens and the planet first, embodying values such as social justice, equality, placing communities at the heart of decision making, as well as addressing climate change and biodiversity loss.

“Creating a people-centred, sustainable city demands a radical change of heart. But it has to happen if we are to create a future we all can and want to live in.”

The challenges Cardiff will face in the years yet to come are not to be underestimated but neither are they insurmountable – they demand “a radical change of heart”.

Maybe I’m a Scrooge around Christmas time because as one year draws to a close you inevitably look ahead to the beginning of a new one, which can be a daunting prospect.

But perhaps the Christmases yet to come in Cardiff can be changed for the better — t’s up to us all to make a difference, in the same way that old Ebenezer had a radical change of heart.

As Councillor Sandrey said, making the right choices now may well change the Christmases we can look forward to and, as Mrs Bennett told me, even during a war families were able to make Christmas a happy respite.  

Christmas is a time for looking back, looking ahead, while also finding joy in the present. If any Scrooges out there thinks this sounds over-sentimental, then to that I say – bah humbug!