The Plygain is a Welsh carol service originally held early on Christmas morning (see also Wales, Christmas in). The Welsh word "Plygain" comes from the Latin phrase pulli cantus, which means "cockcrow song." Originally, the service was scheduled for three a.m. to coincide with the crowing of the first rooster on Christmas morning (see also Misa de Gallo).

The Plygain seems to have evolved from the Roman Catholic Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. During the Reformation religious authorities throughout Great Britain eliminated many Roman Catholic customs (see also Puritans). Nevertheless, Welsh historical records indicate that early morning Christmas services, called Plygains, were still being held in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. These services, conducted by candlelight, included prayers, Christmas carols, and the occasional sermon. A widespread custom required each person who attended to bring a candle to help illuminate the dark church. Often the entire population of the parish attended, regardless of religious affiliation. In some places the people processed to the church with lighted candles or torches. Sometimes young people would stay up all night on Christmas Eve rather than get up early in the morning. They often passed the middle of the night at a local farmhouse singing, dancing, and amusing themselves.

The Plygain began to die out in the twentieth century. One researcher claims that it was discontinued because of the increasingly unruly behavior of those who chose to attend. In the few places in which the service survived, the inconvenient starting time of three a.m. shifted forward towards the morning or backwards towards the previous evening. Eventually, even the date of the service was changed. Today the Plygain takes place in only a few locales and may be scheduled anytime between mid-December and early January. It consists entirely of unaccompanied carol singing and no longer retains any element of religious observance.

Further Reading

Hole, Christina. British Folk Customs. London, England: Hutchinson and Company, 1976. Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1996.
References in periodicals archive ?
A keen Plygain (Matins) singer, it was entirely appropriate the evening ended with a song from this genre.
Arfon says: "The Welsh plygain tradition takes place in churches and chapels in a period around Christmas and the new year, where, after a short service, the 'plygain' is declared open and anyone in the audience can then take part.
Apart from the broadside sources recognized by Palmer, for texts resembling these we might look to the plygain carols of neighbouring Wales or even the carvals of the Isle of Man.
There will also be a unique opportunity to hear early Plygain carols sung in the museum's newly-restored medieval St Teilo's Church.
Emily Price has created Plygain 2015 as a response to experiencing the traditional Welsh singing ceremony of Plygain in mid Wales last winter.
Having said that, I don't know if I'd be able to fit in their practice sessions as I already sing with one community choir (Cr y Dyffryn, based in the Ogwen valley), Y Boncathod (a group of friends who sing traditional Welsh folk songs a cappella), and a church group from St Mary's Church in Llanfairpwll, who firstly came together to sing at traditional plygain services.
Ancient Welsh plygain carols can be heard floating on a breeze, mingling with the cheery sounds of local brass bands.
Weekends, in the run up to Christmas, also feature making Christmas favours and Plygain singing in the Manor.
Last year, I was bouncing up and down on an underground trampoline in Blaenau Ffestiniog, and more recently I took part in a Plygain carol service mid Wales.
THE tradition of Welsh Plygain singing will be explored in a television programme next week.
Roedd o wedi dod yr holl ffordd o Sir Benfro, gyda dau arall, i gymryd rhan yn y Plygain.
In November 1986, the Post Office launched the first stamp to carry a Welsh word: the 18p Plygain stamp, which was one of a set of five depicting British Christmas customs.