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Christmas music in the valleys

18 December 2015

Simon Jones describes a Welsh tradition


Intergenerational: plygain singing is often done in family groups

Intergenerational: plygain singing is often done in family groups

A MIDNIGHT eucharist on Christmas Eve is a staple part of a churchgoing Christmas, even if you do have to suppress the odd yawn. But imagine a service that began at three in the morning, and went on for up to five hours. . . Be introduced to plygain, a traditional Welsh carol service still popular in rural parts of Wales.

Plygain — the name is Welsh, but derives, given the time of day, from the Latin for “cock crow” — is the community harmony singing of Christmas carols. It was also customary for everyone to bring their own candle; so the services were often spectacularly illuminated. The form became popular after the Reformation put an end to Christmas mass, and it hit a peak in the 19th century.

In 1850, after a service in Dolgellau, William Payne wrote the following description: “Now the church is crammed: body, aisles, gallery. Now Shon Robert, the club-footed shoemaker, and his wife strike up alternately, and without artificial aid of pitch pipe, the long, long carol and old favourite describing the Worship of Kings and of the Wise Men, and the Flight into Egypt, and the terrible wickedness of Herod. The crowds are wholly silent and rapt in admiration.”

The timing of plygain services posed some difficulties — not least that the wait through the night for the service meant that certain glasses were refilled rather too often. In 1812, the vestry meeting of St Thomas’s, Neath, banned plygain owing to “the indecent behaviour of the persons attending there”. It was not until 2003 that the Western Mail announced the lifting of the ban in Neath.

In more recent times, the tradition has been kept alive by folk singers keen to preserve its particular sound. “It’s folk singing in the real sense of the word,” Arfon Gwilym, the curator of a modern collection of the songs, says. “The real folk take part. It’s an open-door policy. In all these services, anyone can turn up and take part. That results in a huge difference in quality, but that’s not the point. Everyone comes together to celebrate Christmas.” Originally, however, plygain services were thought to be for men only, while the women and children stayed behind and readied the house for Christmas Day.

“The carols that are heard in a plygain service are quite unique to us, the Welsh,” Rhiannon Ifans, of the University of Wales, wrote. “Our cerdd dant [vocal improvisation] and cynghanedd [harmony], our pwnc recitation [a kind of staccato chant], and also our plygain carols set us apart from others, marking us out as a different culture. These carols are very different from the type of carol heard across the border — and even from those heard in carol services elsewhere in Wales.”

These days, services are likely to be held at more social hours, right into January. A priest says the prayer and the blessing, but otherwise the service is led by singers. Carols may be performed as solos, duets, trios, or in larger groups, but without accompaniment.

Three-part arrangements are the most popular, and each group of singers is called a parti (party). Wordlessly, each parti will move to the front and present a song, to be followed instantly by the next. Groups are often members of the same family, and, traditionally, it would have been unthinkable for a tune to be used again by another parti — no tune or words may be repeated at the same event.

Even if a group have spent hours preparing a carol, they must not sing it if another parti beat them to it. Occasionally, participants will see members of a group leafing frantically through their music, trying to find something else to sing.

When the singing is over, a blessing is given, and all singers join together for the Carol Y Swper (Supper Carol). This marks the end of the service, and takes its name from its final verse: “Mae heddiw’n ddydd cymod, a’r swper yn barod. A’r bwrdd wedi ei osod, o brysiwn” (“Today is a day of reconciliation, and supper is ready. The table is set, oh let us hurry.”)

This year, a new bilingual resource for Advent, The Plygain Tradition: A gift from Wales has been produced by the Methodist Church. “These carols are worth exploring for their poetry and their diversity,” it says. “While some focus on the Christmas story, they are much more likely to deal with the wider theme of salvation.” The resource takes four carols for discussion in small-group settings and can be downloaded from www.methodistwales.org.uk/living-upside-down-advent-resource/.

But there is no substitute for a service itself, and there is still time to catch one. Indeed, this year’s popular Bethlehem Carol Sheet (published by Embrace the Middle East) contains five plygain, and is likely to be used across the Church in Wales.

The most popular services are after Christmas:

Llanerfyn: 3 January 2016
Plygain Darowen: 8 January 2016
Plygain Llanfihangel-yng-Ngwynfa: 10 January 2016
Plygain Mallwyd: 13 January 2016

There is also a service for exiles in London on Sunday 10 January,at Jewin Welsh Presbyterian Chapel, Clerkenwell.


Simon Jones is Editor of Third Way magazine.

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