If you thought Christmas was over, think again. The early Celtic Church celebrated Christmas on 25th of December – according to the Julian Calendar, which equates to the 7th of January on the Gregorian Calendar (the one followed in most Western Countries today). Which is how, this week, I found myself sitting in a traditional Welsh carol service.
Plygain, is the word for this occasion, in Welsh. An ancient, possibly pre-Christianity festival that became part of the Church calendar and was traditionally held in the early hours of Christmas morning. Attendees would often stay up all night, dancing to the harp, before setting out with flaming torches to escort the priest to the church for the commencement of the service.
Now if you know one thing about Wales, it is probably the love of choral singing. Although the mass, male voice choirs we associate with Wales today were most likely a product of of the industrial era, singing in harmony is a much older Welsh tradition. Here is what Gerald of Wales had to say about it in the 12th century:
When they come together to make music, the Welsh sing their traditional songs, not in unison, as is done elsewhere, but in parts, in many modes and modulations. When a choir gathers to sing, which happens often in this country, you will hear as many different parts and voices as there are performers.
Wednesday night a group of children kicked off the Plygain program. They rose, in silence, walked to the front of the church, pitched a note, and began to sing unaccompanied, and in harmony. After they had returned to their seats, a group of teenagers rose, and sang a different song. Followed by other groups, duos and individuals, all without introduction or apparent instructions. Until it almost every person in the church had contributed. At which point, the vicar rose, and I started shrugging into my coat, thinking we had come to the end of the service.
No, think again. After singing a community carol, the whole program started over, with the same group following the same groups, duos and individuals, until we had gone right though the ranks of the assembled for a second time. At which point the vicar rose again, we sang another carol and I had a strange sitting-in-the-front-pew-unable-to-leave-sense that the whole cycle was about to start over.
I wasn’t bored, quite the opposite. Plygain carols are not familiar carols translated into Welsh. They are much older and often written in the Dorian mode and, if you add to this the unaccompanied singing in harmony, the effect is quite stunning. But I’d heard these stories of all night Plygain services, and I was sitting towards the front of the church which meant I couldn’t leave, without everyone knowing, added to which I had a sense that, if I did leave, I would have somehow failed the Welsh test.
Fortunately, my Welshness was not put to the test on Wednesday evening. All the men in the church rose, sung a final song, Can y Swper (supper song) and we were all invited to the Neuadd y Pentref (village hall) for a bite to eat. I wasn’t intending to stay for supper. I have allergies that cut out a host of foods (never easy to explain in Welsh) added to which it was my weekly protein only day (even harder to explain). Besides, I didn’t know anyone. There is nothing worse than sitting alone in a hall full of people who have known each other for years.
Escape wasn’t an option, however. People were way to friendly, which is how I found myself sitting at a table trying to explain why I only had half a boiled egg on my plate. After I had gone through the explanations about the egg and growing up in Australia and studying Welsh as an adult, some of which I’m sure got lost in translation (there was this woman who came all the way from Australia to see our Plygain service and can’t eat anything but boiled eggs), I asked questions about the Plygain tradition. Here is what I learned:
- Traditionally the evening starts with children
- Then teenagers
- Then a group from the church
- After which the order is random
- Plygain is not a concert
- All are welcome to participate
- The song list is not known beforehand
- Once a song has been sung, it is not to be repeated
- Which is why everyone performed more than once (traditionally three times)
- In the same order
- As it is a kind of test (see I got that bit right) on rising to the occasion
- Which means groups have to prepare for every eventuality
- And, finally, Can y Swper is not a song to announce supper (what were you thinking?)
- It is a song about the Last Supper
- Because traditional Plygain services do no focus on the baby in the manger
- The tell the whole story
- From birth, to death, to resurrection