Rhiannon Ifans on one of Wales’ unique musical traditions

On a winter’s evening when the ground is frozen hard and snow threatens to fall, one of my greatest pleasures is to leave my cosy fireside and begin the long journey to Montgomeryshire. Why? Because this is where the plygain tradition is at its strongest, and I’m never happier than when I get to join the carol singers to take part in a plygain service.

The carols that are heard in a plygain service are quite unique to us, the Welsh. Our cerdd dant and cynghanedd, our pwnc recitation, 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.

The plygain begins with certain leading sections of Evening Prayer. An suitable lesson is read, a short prayer is offered up, and the congregation sings a carol or hymn. The usual lesson read is the story of the shepherds and the angels from the gospel of St. Luke (Luke 2: 8– 20), but if the plygain is being held in January we may hear the tale of the wise men from St. Matthew’s gospel. As soon as the opening sections are complete, the vicar announces that the ‘plygain is open’, and this is the cue for the soloists, duos, trios, parties (sometimes large choirs) to come forward in turn to present their carols.

After everyone has sung their first carol, the second cycle begins, and all the contributors re-appear in their original order to sing a second carol. In a given service, each carol may be sung once only. At the very end of proceedings, all the men – and only the men – join to sing the ‘Supper Carol’. And there you have it – the simplest affair that ever was planned.

The carollers’ chief treasure is the carol book from which they sing. In the case of the oldest parties, they possess a family carol book, and this often shows signs of tremendous wear. In it we find a selection of carols copied out by hand from printed sources, or noted down from oral tradition. I myself treasure one of these rare volumes.

This came to our home via my husband Dafydd’s family. This is a ‘variety’ volume, that is a volume containing various books and pamphlets sewn together. One of these items is Bardd a Byrddau, the work of Jonathan Hughes, Llangollen (1721– 1805), and this contains a noble collection of plygain carols. This ‘variety’ volume is quite tattered, having been sewn together during the eighteenth century in a primitive, amateurish fashion. It is bound in brown leather and there are traces of leather handles that would have secured the whole thing together, one cover to the other.

The sole evidence within this ragged brown leather book is the signature of one David Morgan. Dafydd’s grandfather bought this book second hand; he, John David Evans (1875– 1938), was a very enthusiastic collector of books. Although not himself a carol singer, he was warden in Eglwys Gwnnws near Ystrad Meurig, a remote rural parish in central Ceredigion.

The tradition of holding a plygain service has long since disappeared from the Gwnnws area. However, after years of silent absence, the tradition has raised its head once more in the village of Penrhyn-coch, barely fifteen miles from Gwnnws. And so in the wake of this renaissance of the tradition, this ‘variety’ volume will once more find an honoured place in the bosom of our family.

You can find out more about the background of the Plygain, including sound files of Plygain carols, Plygain candles and other Christmas customs, on the St Fagans National Museum of History website in this article.

Rhiannon Ifans (article first appeared in Ontrac magazine, issue 19)