Dec 19

Welsh Christmas Carols – The Plygain Tradition

Plygain carols are a specific variety of Christmas carols sung in Wales in the Welsh language. The carols, which date from the 17th to the 19th century are some of the most fantastic music I have heard.

This is music sung with a full voice and a full heart. It has a renewing and life-enhancing effect on both singers and listeners. It is lovely to see the happy smiles on most faces at the end of a plygain session, no matter whether the participants are believers of the Christian tradition or not.

The plygain tradition managed to remain alive in churches and chapels in small pockets of North Wales and in the border region between Wales and Shropshire (England). It is now undergoing a revival as more and more people discover this wonderful music.

The origins of plygain

The word plygain is thought to come from the Latin words pulli (cock) and cantus (song), i.e. cock crow, referring to the fact the service occurred at or before dawn on Christmas morning. In the past, it could start as early as 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning.

Plygain Welsh Carols songbook

A collection of 60 plygain carols arranged for three voices or solo. Produced by Arfon Gwilym and Sioned Webb, Available with free delivery worldwide. Click on the image to buy.

This has parallels with the ancient tradition of celebrating a mass at dawn on Christmas morning, which took place after the midnight mass of the previous night and before the standard mid-late morning mass on Christmas Day.

Originally, plygain was a event just for men. With time, women and children began to attend as well, after helping to decorate the church or chapel in the preceding days.

Until very recently, though, only men would be permitted to sing. In a few places, where the tradition has continued more or less unbroken, women are still not allowed to take part.

Nevertheless, it seems women did sing plygain in some places. The National Museum of Wales cites a passage written by William Payne describing the plygain service in Dolgellau around 1850. In this, he describes how:

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.

 A typical plygain service

Carols by candlelight

In the old days, people brought candles to light the church. The many flames, together with the decorations of holly, ivy and other evergreens must have been a glorious sight. Public domain photo by Marco Gubka.

Apart from an introductory prayer and final blessing, the plygain service is not led by a priest or minister, but by the singers.

The carols are sung as solos, duets, trios, or in larger groups, but always a cappella (no instrumental accompaniment).

Many of the plygain arrangements are in three parts. The marvellous folk singer and expert Arfon Gwilym suggests this is because that is the minimum number of simultaneously sounding notes required to get a full chord.

Arfon Gwilym and Sioned Webb have published a collection of 60 plygain carols, Hen Garolau Cymru.

Each group of singers is called a parti (party). Without a word being said, one party will stand up, move to the front and present a carol. When they finish, another party will come forward.

Once all the parties have come forward, another round will start in exactly the same order of presentation. There may be eight, ten or more parties participating. The service will usually consist of two, sometimes three rounds, and will typically last up to two hours.

There is one fundamental rule: no tune and no words may be repeated at the same event. Thus, it is never possible to sing two different versions of the same carol in one service.

In the old days, a good number of the plygain parties were members of the same family. The carols they sang were often handed down in the family through generations. It would have been unthinkable for these tunes to be poached by another party.

Today, many parties sing from published collections and there is a risk of duplication. Even if a party has spent hours preparing a carol, they must not sing it if another party beats them to it. However, it is a point of honour to sing in each round. It is not unknown to see a members of a party leafing frantically through their music trying to find something else to sing, to the quiet amusement of their (friendly) rivals who managed to get in first!

When the rounds have been completed, the blessing is given and all those who have presented are invited to join together to sing the Carol Y Swper. This “Supper Carol” marks the end of the service and gets its name from these lines in the last 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, O let us hurry)

This video shows a workshop at BEAM (a weekend of Welsh traditional music held each year). Participants are learning Carol Y Swper with Arfon Gwilym

Recommended recordings

The best plygain singing is done in the folk style, a capella, and it has an element of rawness to it. I have heard some of these carols recorded in a very polished arrangement by classically trained singers or famous choirs with full piano, organ or orchestral accompaniment. In my humble opinion, the music loses something when presented in too “professional” a manner.

A good example of the most authentic plygain carol singing is “Caneuon Plygain & LLoft Stabal”, a selection from the sound archives of the National Museum of Welsh Life at St Fagan’s. About half of this album is devoted to the carols, while the remainder consists of so-called “stable loft songs” sung in close harmony or as solo pieces.

From Amazon UK From Amazon US

For a selection from various parties, including some with mixed male and female voices, try “Ar Dymor Gaeaf”

From Amazon UK From Amazon US

Plygain banned

In the old days people would get up in the early hours and pass the time singing and dancing to the harp until they had to leave for the church. In country towns, they might take the party out into the streets.

Some would simply stay up the whole night, especially if they had also attended midnight mass. The women would spend some of the time making taffy and other sweetmeats. Some also practiced divination, to find out what the coming year would bring.

The wait through the night for the plygain service inevitably meant there were those who partook rather too freely of the festivities and refilled their mugs rather too often. Consequently, not everyone turned up at church in a fit state for a service of worship.

On December 22, 1812, the parish council of St Thomas’ Church in Neath, South Wales issued a statement that plygain was henceforth banned in the parish due to “the indecent behaviour of the persons attending there”. It was not until December 29, 2003 that the Western Mail newspaper was able to announce the lifting of the ban by the current parish council. After a gap of 92 years, a plygain service was once again held in St Thomas’ at 7.30 in the morning on Sunday January 4, 2004.

The tradition continues

In many places, plygain has remained a local tradition. The Sion Lloc Welsh Methodist Chapel in north-east Wales is so well known for its services that it is known by people as “Capel y Plygain”.

Plygain Welsh carols

Sion Lloc Chapel by Tim Stuart [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The tradition has evolved so that in many places the services occur over the period between Christmas and Epiphany (January 6). The times have also been moved to later in the day, sometimes to the evening, making it easier for people to come from a distance.

Although some of the old school are unhappy at the development, women are becoming increasingly involved in plygain singing today. There is growing interest in workshops on plygain singing, people are forming themselves into parties and services are being started in new areas.

If you are fortunate to be in the right area of Wales at the right time of year, do not miss the opportunity to hear this wonderful, unique tradition. It was once in danger of becoming lost, but has now captured the hearts of many new enthusiasts.

I have been fortunate to participate in plygain workshops two years running at BEAM (Big Experiment/Arbrawf Mawr). This is a long weekend of workshops focusing on Welsh folk music organised by the folk music organisation Trac Cymru.

For many, the highlight of BEAM 2010 and 2011 was a short but genuine, although totally unseasonal plygain service held at the Church of St Ceinwen, Llangeinwen. This church, once famed throughout Anglesey for its singing, was the place of worship of John Owen of Dwyran (1856-1937), who collected many old plygain carols. The service in 2010 was an emotional and joyful experience because this music was being sung once more after a gap of about 100 years.

Church of Santes Ceinwen, Llangeinwen, Ynys Mon (Anglesey).  Photo: Eric Jones [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Church of Santes Ceinwen, Llangeinwen, Ynys Mon (Anglesey).
Photo: Eric Jones [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Here are Arfon Gwilym and Sioned Webb, in whose plygain workshops I have been lucky to participate, singing an example together with Robin Huw Bowen. The video includes Arfon speaking about this tradition: