Saturday, 30 May 2015

Sounds of Christmas are rooted in history

Carols and Plygain – 30 Dec 2015

From the fourth century to the time of the Reformation, carols tended to be popular songs on Biblical themes with catchy tunes.  They would especially concentrate on the events of the twelve days of Christmas, and use repetition for ease of memory – as with ‘God rest ye merry, gentlemen’ and its chorus of ‘Tidings of comfort and joy’.  Only later were carols sung in churches, increasing in popularity after the Reformation, for Luther welcomed music and wrote some carols himself. 

As well as writing several thousand hymns, in 1739 Charles Wesley wrote the carol that we know as ‘Hark! the herald angels sing’.  It originally began ‘Hark! how all the welkin rings’ – ‘welkin’ being an old word for sky or the vault of heaven - until changed by Wesley’s fellow preacher George Whitefield in 1753 to the more familiar  words.

In Victorian times there was a surge of interest in carols - Christmas-related lyrics were joined to the traditional English folk song ‘Greensleeves’, to make the carol ‘What Child is this?’, and some hymns became popular when sung as carols.  Such composers as Arthur Sullivan, W.S. Gilbert’s colleague who composed the Savoy operas, helped popularise them and introduced such favourites as ‘Good King Wenceslas’.  The tunes of carols like ‘Good King Wenceslas’ and ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ can be traced directly back to the Middle Ages, and are among the oldest musical compositions still regularly sung.

In rural parts of Wales Christmas Day marked the beginning of a three-week period of holidays - Y Gwyliau - when all but the most urgent farm work was suspended.  Symbolically the plough might be carried into the house and placed beneath the table where meals were eaten during this time.  On Christmas Day there might be a sumptuous meal of goose or beef for consumption.

In many parts of Wales people rose early on 25th December to attend the Plygain service at the parish church.  The Welsh word may derive from the Latin ‘pulli cantus’ meaning ‘cock crow’, and the service may have developed from the midnight mass of pre-Reformation times, for it could start anytime from 3am to 6am.  Young people often stayed up the night before making toffee on the hearth before setting off for the carol service. 

For illumination candles were carried to the church, which also symbolised that Christ Jesus is the light of the world.  Plygain was an abbreviated form of Morning Service, interspersed with carols sung by a soloist or a duet or a group of singers.  Sometimes a carol might be written especially for the occasion by a local poet.  At the end of the service, which might include a short sermon, if at all, the church bells would be rung.

In spite of the impact of nonconformity in South Wales, plygain could also take place in the chapels.  The remainder of the day was given over to family gatherings, neighbourly visits, traditionally a goose for lunch, and in the afternoon open-air sports for younger people.  It was Victorian times that saw Christmases change from a social occasion involving all the community to one of family celebration in private homes.  Along with Christmas cards, crackers and Christmas trees - to mention but three things - the Victorians have a lot to answer for!  Incidentally Father Christmas as we know him pre-dates the Victorians, emanating from the Dutch in New York in the early nineteenth century, especially via an 1823 poem ‘A Visit from St Nicholas’. 

Perhaps with the coming of television we in the northern hemisphere would have moved to family celebration in the homes sooner or later: of course those experiencing Christmas in warm climates can still enjoy community-based celebrations!               


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