Bees and Carols


Now, when we were little, my mother would have interesting stories to please us when she wasn't too busy with the housework nor too tired from washing, ironing and mending our clothes!

A proverb that was often heard among the ordinary people was, "Gaeaf glas wna fynwent fras" ("A mild winter makes a full cemetery"), and to suggest how true it was my mother used to tell a fairly remarkable story about an event she had experienced herself.

The old people used to say - this is the story my mother told me - that the bees would waken from their winter sleep and begin to "sing praise" before the break of day on Christmas morning.

One Christmas, during a particularly fine winter, her grandfather called her very early to go with her grandmother and himself and some of the neighbours to the garden to hear the bees "sing praise". And the little granddaughter had to go, almost before she was awake - her grandfather earnestly leading the small and expectant group by the light of a candle held in an old 'horn lantern' ( an old fashioned lantern with a handle).

While everyone was listening in silence by the beehive they suddenly heard, not the buzz of the bees, but a kind of rustling in a thorn bush within a few feet of them, and then a sound as if a bird had flown out of the thorns. Her grandfather held the lantern so as to cast its feeble light on the bush. What my mother (now fully awake) saw at once was a thrush's nest and in it were four blue-green eggs - and that was on Christmas morning!

That winter was a 'Gaeaf glas' and before three weeks were out, following that strange occurrence, the old grandfather and many of his contemporaries had been laid to rest in the venerable churchyard nearby.


Referring to Christmas quite naturally brings the mind back to old customs associated with that festival. No doubt there are many still living who remember a 'plygain' in full splendour somewhere or other in Wales in their youth, but perhaps some of the younger generation among my readers may perhaps suppose that a plygain is something to wear, to eat, or at least to drink! It is true that it has to do with Christmas Day but wearing new clothes and eating and drinking more than usual are not the only means to keep a soul alive - even during the great festival!

The meaning of the word 'plygain', according to the experts, is 'the cock's crow', 'the break of day', 'the dawn', but in particular it means morning prayer and praise. It is the name for an old custom formerly popular in Wales, especially from the fifteenth to the beginning of the nineteenth century. The plygain was revived in some parts of the North of the Principality about the beginning of the present century, but the custom was stopped, as many other interesting customs were stopped, during the Great War.

The plygain is - or was - a service of singing carols and making a kind of 'joyful noise' before dawn on Christmas Day. When I was a child, elderly people remembered the carol service at the height of its glory. They would set out from home, they said, very early on the morning of Christmas Day in order to visit some old parish church far away in the hills. A small group would gather at some convenient place and here and there on the way others would be waiting for them, so that when they reached the church there would be a hundred carol singers or more. After the service, the custom was that families who lived near the church would provide a marvellous breakfast for the carol singers who had come from afar. One can only imagine how they must have enjoyed the hot milk, the barley bread with butter, the eggs and the bacon, after travelling miles through the snow and singing carols and seasonal hymns in a cold ancient church of grim appearance. "That's how things were", they say, "long ago."

It seems, however, that things were different when I came into the world! I remember one Christmas morning walking through deep snow, biting cold and pitch darkness over the brow of Moel Hiraddug to Lan y Cwm to take my place with the carol singers in the parish church - a place I have been to only once since then! I belonged to the children's choir of Capel y Marian, a mile or two from the church.
For weeks we had been rehearsing a new carol for Christmas but by now I can recall only a few lines. What I can never forget, however, is how tiring the journey was and how intense the cold, and, oh, how my bare hands smarted from chilblains after I reached the church! And on that occasion - no matter how things would have been in former times - I heard no mention of "a marvellous breakfast", nor did I see a sign of anything to eat until after I had retraced my weary path homewards through the snow along the slopes of the 'Moel'!

This story of the attempt to hear the bees 'sing praise' and the story of the 'plygain' are from the book,
'Hiwmor, Synnwyr a Halen' ('Humour, Wisdom and Salt') by David Delta Evans, whose mother was born in 1833.
It was published in London about 1937

Published in The Green Dragon No 5, Winter, 1997.

Translation and editing from Welsh: Wales Famine Forum, 1997.


Christmas Box