Once autumn has bid a fond farewell and each and every one has started to complain that it’s cold, it’s the perfect time to visit Montgomeryshire. Why? Well, to sing the old ‘plygain’ carols – not in a concert or an eisteddfod, but rather as part of a service that occurs as a natural part of society in both church and chapel, throughout the Advent and Gŵyl Fair y Canhwyllau (Mary’s Festival of the Candles or Candlemas) on the 2nd of February.
Apparently the word plygain stems from the Latin pullicantio, ‘cock’s crow’. Originally, the service was held at 3 a.m., before being brought forward to 4, then 5, and then 6 a.m. on Christmas morning. Prior to the Protestant Reformation, plygain was one of the services of the Catholic Church, but it was subsequently adopted by the Anglicans, and then at a later date, the Nonconformists. Today, the service is mostly held in the evening.
The service commences with the Evening Prayer (in a church) or a short service (in a chapel). Then comes the declaration ‘Mae’r plygain yn awr yn agored’ (The plygain is now open), which means that it is open for anyone to present a plygain carol. Children open the plygain, followed by young people, then a party from the church or the local area, followed by those who have travelled from afar; should there be more than one local party, then one of them will close the plygain. There is never a programme. The carol-singers, both individuals and parties, make their way through the large congregation down to the chancel or the elders’ pew, pitch a note with a tuning fork, and then sing unostentatiously. The carol-singers decide on the order of the evening to ensure that no two soloists or duets follow each other, and to ensure that the items are varied.
All of the singing is informal, without a conductor or leader. Participants must remember the order of the first half so that the same order is followed during the second half (or the second cycle), and they must also remember which carols have been sung to ensure that none are repeated. At the end, the men who have already presented a carol are called forward to sing ‘Carol y Swper’ (the Supper Carol) together. At their best they are truly mesmerising.
The season’s first plygain is magical experience, as the singers come together once again after another busy year. There is a profound friendship amongst the carol-singers and the supper that follows the service is a very important part of the evening.
We are extremely grateful to the folk of Montgomeryshire and adjacent areas of Gwynedd – Mallwyd, and Llanymawddwy especially – for succeeding without fail to uphold the tradition over the centuries. This is still the plygain’s stronghold today. However, the old carols were sung across Wales at one time, and the tradition is starting once again and enveloping large parts of the country.
Traditionally, the parties were members of the same family, for example ‘Parti Bronheulog’, and would practice at home. The carol-singers have a book of family carols, and only members of that family can sing those particular carols.
‘Parti Bronheulog’ singing the Plygain carol ‘Ar Gyfer Heddiw’r Bore’
Today, with so many moving away from the communities where they were born and raised, many of the modern parties are new parties, based on friendship rather than lineage and blood.
It is possible that the custom of singing carols at plygain services was started by the carol composers of Glamorgan in the 16th century. The custom spread throughout Wales, bringing sermon and song to the parishioners, conveying the teaching of the Righteous and the order of Salvation in Christ, as well as His birth, His death and His resurrection. It is not uncommon for some of the old carols to contain twenty and more verses, and to be steeped in the theology of salvation. However, by the twentieth century, the flame of the Great Reformation having faded, the carols are not so consistently intense in their content.
Many of the carols were sung on tunes popular at that time, and the Welsh measures used include ‘Ffarwel Ned Puw’, ‘Clychau Rhiwabon’ and ‘Difyrrwch Gwŷr Caernarfon’. And it wasn’t just the Welsh measures that were popular; English measures were also used, including ‘Charity Mistress’, ‘Let Mary Live Long’ and several ballads. Another tune sung often at the plygain is ‘Annie Lisle’, an American ballad composed in 1857 by H. S. Thompson, Boston, Massachusetts.
Powerful lyrics, beautiful melodies, the company of friends and a scrumptious supper. What else could anyone want on a cold winter’s night?
Dr Rhiannon Ifans
This post is also available in: Welsh