THE ROOTS OF ‘PLYGAIN’*
The word comes from the Latin ‘pulli cantus’, meaning the song of
the cockrel. Originally, the Plygain was simply an early morning
service in the church. It eventually came to mean a service on
Christmas morning itself. In the early twentieth century, for
example, the Llanerfyl Plygain started at 5.00 a.m.
On Christmas Eve, servants and farmworkers working away would
return home and would spend the hours up to the service making
toffee and practising their carols.
Evidence from various parts of the country suggest that some of
these early morning services could become rowdy, especially if
alcohol was involved. This was probably one reason why some
services were abandoned. Another possible reason was the need to
get out of bed so early!
In Montgomeryshire in particlular, two factors helped the tradition
to survive: the services were gradually moved from early morning to
evening, and they were also spread out over a period of weeks
rather than one day. This meant that everyone could support each
other’s services, creating a network of plygain services.
* In Montgomeryshire, it is called ‘plygien’, but in other parts of
Wales - e.g. Ceredigion. - it was called ‘pylgen’.
What is Plygain?
A Plygain is a special form of carol service held in parts of
Wales around Christmas - a service with its emphasis on
singing traditional carols, unaccompanied. Many of these
carols are very old. By 2020 there were around 40 of these
services in different parts of the country, from early
December until late January. The services are held in chapels
as well as churches.
Some of the plygain’s features make it unique:
1. Anyone can take part - as long as the conventions and
customs are respected.
2. The form of the service. Apart from a short service (a
reading, a prayer, a carol for the congregation), no words are
spoken. The singers come forward whenever they feel like it:
soloists, duets, trios and groups, large and small, and sing one
carol. There is no pre-arranged order. When it becomes
obvious that anyone who wishes to sing has done so, that
brings the first ‘round’ to a close.
3. Usually at that point the congregation sing another carol,
and the service moves on to the second ‘round’. This time the
singers will come forward in exactly the same order as the
A third round may then take place - depending on the
number of performers present, but this is the exception.
The service ends with the male singers coming together to
sing ‘Carol y Swper’ (the Supper Carol). It so happens that a
supper is then provided to the singers in the vestry or local
4. Everyone sings unaccompanied. One convention is that
no-one sings a tune or set of words already sung by someone
else. This means that everyone has to come prepared, with
extra carols in reserve.
The stronghold of the tradition is the old Montgomeryshire
(north Powys), where a network of services thrive. In those
areas the tradition has continued unbroken for countless
There are a few other areas with an unbroken tradition also:
Sïon Chapel, Lloc, Flintshire* and St Rhedyw Church, Llanllyfni
in the Nantlle Vale.
The tradition once belonged to most of Wales, but it
disappeared gradually from most areas. Up until the 1960s
and 70s the rest of Wales was largely unaware that the
tradition was still alive in mid-Wales. However, the tradition
was ‘rediscovered’ by the St Fagan Welsh Folk Museum,
through the work of Roy Saer in particular. An EP record was
released, followed by an LP record, leading to renewed
interest in Wales as a whole. This eventually led to the
tradition being reintroduced in parts of Wales from where it
had long disappeared.
* unfortunately, Sïon Chapel, Lloc, was forced to close
following the Covid pandemic, ending a 180 year tradition (it
had been going since 1840).
This website was put together through the joint efforts of :
Ceris Gruffudd, Ffion Mair, Roy Griffiths, Rhian Davies, Gareth
Williams, & Arfon Gwilym.
Dyluniwyd gan H G Web Designs, Y Bala
THE ORDER OF THE SERVICE
1. The opening parts
The minister or vicar prays, reads from the scriptures and
asks the congregation to sing. He or she will then declare:
“The Plygain is now open.”
2. The First Round
If children are taking part, or the church or chapel’s own
party, they will usually come forward first.
Afterwards, any individual or party can come forward
whenever they wish. The order is never arranged in
advance. If more than one party gets up, they will have to
agree wich one/ones come forward and which one/ones
wait for the next opportunity.
Only one carol is sung at a time.
It doesn’t matter if there is some delay between the
performances. Indeed, that can add to the atmosphere,
and rushing can disturb this mood. It should always be
remembered that the Plygain is a service and not a
concert. There is therefore no clapping.
If there’s a longer pause than usual, this is a sign that
everyone who wishes to sing has done so. That is the end
of the first ‘round’.
3. A Carol for the Congregation.
4. The Second Round
The second round will follow in exactly the same order as
the first. If the number of performers is small (six for
example), a thrid round may follow. If there around eight
or more performances, two rounds is usually the norm.
5. The final part
At the end of the second (or third) round, the
congregation will sing another carol.
The tradition afterwards is that all individuals or parties
who have taken part are called forward to sing ‘Carol y
Swper’ (The Supper Carol). In Montgomeryshire and
surrounding areas, the age old custom is that only the
men sing this carol: this is part of the tradition.
The vicar or minister will then give the blessing.
A light supper is prepared in the vestry or local hall (or
sometimes in private homes).
FEATURES AND CONVENTIONS
OF THE TRADITIONAL PLYGAIN SERVICE
Note: These are not rules: more like customs that have
developed over time. There has never been any central
body or organisation to lay down the law, and so they are
not ‘policed’ in any way. Respecting these customs is a
matter of courtesy.
Open to the world
The Plygain is open to everyone: anyone can take part.
The order is not arranged in advance. In the first part of the
service, anyone who wishes to take part can choose when
they want to get up and sing (but the following round/rounds
will follow the first round; see point 4, The Second Round
under ‘Order of Service’.
Everone sings unaccompanied, apart from the organ for the
congregational singing, and sometimes for the younger
A variety of performances follow: individuals, duets, trios,
quartets, etc. At one time, a party of more than six were the
exception, but they are now more common. A choir is almost
The pitch is usually decided with a pitchfork .
A copy is always used; singing without one would seem out of
Carols in a modern idiom are the exception. New and recent
carols are heard, but they are carols that reflect the style and
mood of traditional ones.
For plygain singers, the word ‘arrangement’ means no more
than a basic harmonisation in two, three or four parts. In
some printed collections, some more advanced or ‘clever’
arrangements are seen, but these are hardly ever heard in the
plygain services. Not every party will sing exactly the same
notes or words on the same carol - a sure sign that these
carols were first learnt by ear.
No words or tune is ever repeated. This means that everyone
taking part must ensure they have enough carols in reserve,
The style is simple and unadorned, with the emphasis on the
natural fall of the words - just like singing a folk song.
The language of the service is Welsh.