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The Rhondda today

March 2014 | by Mike Hansen

Life-long Rhondda resident Mike Hansen reflects, post-Christmas, on the huge changes that have taken place in the Welsh Valleys.

In a rapidly changing Wales and Britain, another Christmas has come and gone. Christmas is a familiar tradition whose cheerfully commercial paganism is as much a part of our way of life as, say, Easter’s cheerfully commercial paganism.

It is a time of welcome respite from the usual tedium of life and work, with recourse to the merriments of family unions, banquets and festivity, and much giving of gifts, all enforced by the conventions of the season.

It is a season that nowadays seems to start with supermarket promotions, immediately after Halloween. Well, ask people in the Valleys what Christmas means to them, and they will answer in the same way as people all across the land — very much as the above!

Mining communities

I grew up in the Rhondda in the sixties and seventies, and I recall Christmas being the same then as now. The TV shows were different, at least superficially, with Dixon of Dock Green; and The black and white minstrel show in black and white, giving way to The Morecambe and Wise show in colour.

The commercially driven hedonism of our post-war, consumer society shaped and defined things then pretty much as it does now.

In our grandparents’ day it was different. Born in the late nineteenth century, theirs was a Rhondda world-famous for its coal mining industry, on which the economy depended and whose brutal, exploitative hardships helped to give moral meaning to a once-great labour movement.

In those days, churches and chapels were as much a feature of Valley life as the collieries themselves — buildings of often fine, sometimes grand, appearance and capacity, and fully attended. Now, where they remain at all, such places usually stand empty and derelict, the skeletal remains of great Christian movements of the past.

In Tonypandy alone, there must once have been a dozen churches and chapels with full congregations, but now little is left of them but abandoned buildings, dilapidated structures, or places only maintained to serve other, secular purposes.

Their condition is a symbol of the decline to near-extinction of Christianity itself in the Valleys, where children now grow up with no knowledge of the faith of their forebears and where morning school assemblies marginalise Christianity.

Secularisation

Figures published in Evangelical Times in April 2003 point out that Rhondda-Cynon-Taff is one of the most secular regions of Britain, with one of the smallest percentages of the population claiming any religious faith at all, never mind attending a church.

This transformation of a Valley once renowned for its church and chapel attendances, with its famous hymns and choir singing, into one of the most secular places in Britain, where Christmas no longer bears any relation to its Christian origins, can perhaps be explained, to some extent, by the influence of socialism.

Socialism has often been imbued with an atheist ideology, and this dominated the labour movement to which the South Wales Valleys had an almost feudal adherence. Yet, the impassioned oratorical style of the Labour-socialist tradition owed much to the fervent preaching tradition of the Protestant, nonconformist churches; the former developing in those areas where the latter had established itself long before radio, cinema and television offered any other widespread form of public speaking.

Now it seems that both the Christian tradition, with its forlorn crumbling remains, and the socialist tradition have passed largely into memory. In common with the rest of the country, many of our once bustling high streets are in a sadly declined state, as people shop out-of-town or online.

Void

The population of this Valley has declined by nearly half, from a height of 124,000 in 1924 to about 77,000 today. Increasingly, people from different religious and cultural traditions fill what would otherwise be an even greater void in our shops and stores.

So, in early 2014, we reflect on the past Christmas season and consider, not only the loss of its original Christian roots — roots that gave it such meaning, beyond mere commercial and hedonistic indulgence — but also on the loss of a whole culture and community in which that tradition had a rich and valued place.

That Christian tradition and culture, for children and youngsters in today’s Rhondda, is as distant and alien as another world. Such enormous changes challenge us to pray for a revival of true Christianity, that will once more permeate our nation and Valleys. Let us cry to God to do this, through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ!

Mike Hansen