PLYGAIN: an ancient tradition making a comeback

We’ve got so used to telling one another that everything in the church is so bad that we’re unable to see any signs of life anymore, even when they are there. As Advent and Christmas approach we have an opportunity once again to talk about one of these signs, the recent revival of the plygain tradition in church and chapel.

It did not completely disappear. It survived in a few churches here and there, and in one part of the country in particular, north-east Montgomeryshire. Plygain means worship as the cock crows, with the tradition going back to the middle ages when congregations would gather in the parish church in the early hours for the first mass of Christmas day.

It survived the revolutions of the Protestant Reformation but it was completely transformed and became an evening service for the worship of God by the singing of carols.

Today these services usually begin with elements from the service of Evening Prayer and with the singing of a congregational hymn or carol. The lesson will usually be the account of the shepherds and the angels from the Gospel of St. Luke, though if the service is in January the account of the visit of the wise men from St. Matthew’s Gospel is used.

The priest will declare “mae’r plygain yn agored” — the plygain is open — and that will be the signal for soloists, groups and even choirs, in their turn, to sing traditional carols without accompaniment.

After all have sung their first carol, the second cycle begins, and all the contributors sing another carol in the same order. It will be a different carol as it is only acceptable to sing any carol once in any service. At the end the men will join together to sing ‘Carol y Swper’ — the supper carol. Since it is a worship service at no point during the service is it usually acceptable for people to clap.

Attending your first plygain service can be a strange experience. For an hour or two everything will be in the hands of the carol singers. There will be no programme set out beforehand and no one leads the service, but the singers will in turn come forward to sing God’s praises.

The traditional carols outline the history of salvation from the garden of Eden to the new Jerusalem. The birth of Christ is given appropriate attention in these carols, but they do not concentrate exclusively upon it, and so we hear of the sacrifice of the cross, the victory of the resurrection, and we await his second coming.

The service is held entirely through the Welsh language. But the plygain is a service that shows how worship can transcend mere words and language and I would suggest that any non-Welsh speaker would experience that if they attended. While the help of a friendly Welsh speaker would make it a little easier it is not essential as you are sure to get some help if needed.

On the whole the plygain tradition in St Davids diocese is a rediscovered tradition. So if you have not discovered for yourself yet then there is an opportunity this Advent and Christmas as a number of services will be held in churches and chapels in the area of the diocese. It is worth joining with these congregations to be part of a very different worship tradition.

A list of Advent and Christmas plygain services across our diocese can be found at https://stdavids.churchinwales.org.uk and https://tyddewi.eglwysyngnghymru.org.uk/

Revd Lyn Dafis