Plygain for Peace: Appreciating Welsh Christmas Music

I’m slightly belated relative to the beginning of the season of Advent, but Christmas hasn’t come yet, so it’s not too late for a few thoughts on the music of the season! As a second-language Welsh speaker, I was at first unfamiliar with Welsh music, but learning the language gave me entry to an entire new musical world. One of the things we tried to encourage people to do in the Welsh Tattoo Handbook was to take an interest in Welsh music and poetry, to find verses that meant something to you and to use those as inspiration for a tattoo or other creative project. And so, I’m particularly hoping that this post will encourage Welsh learners to explore Welsh-language Christmas music, because there’s so much to appreciate.

I want to share two of my personal favorites. The first might be termed a translation of a song originally written in English, but honestly, it’s not a translation at all. It’s an adaptation to make something altogether new – which, according to the story I was told, was an important detail for how the song came to be in the first place. You see, the starting point for the song is the beloved Leonard Cohen piece, “Hallelujah”, and the story I heard has it that official translations of that song had never been approved before – but Welsh group Brigyn finally received permission for their project to adapt the song into Welsh, allegedly because they weren’t simply translating it, but rather had a unique vision of their own that would pay homage to the original.

Leonard Cohen had this to say about his famously melancholy masterpiece: “This world is full of conflicts and full of things that cannot be reconciled. But there are moments when we can reconcile and embrace the whole mess, and that’s what I mean by ‘Hallelujah’.” I’d say Brigyn must have felt this to their bones, because in their adaptation, Cohen’s allusive and existential original becomes profoundly specific – and, in the end, offers itself as a Christmas prayer for peace.

First I’ll share the Welsh lyrics, then their official English translation. You can listen here.

Haleliwia (Welsh lyrics: © Tony Llewelyn)

Mewn dwrn o ddur mae’r seren wen 
Mae cysgod gwn tros Bethlehem 
Dim angel gwyn yn canu Haleliwia. 
Codi muriau, cau y pyrth 
Troi eu cefn ar werth y wyrth 
Mor ddu yw’r nos ar strydoedd Palesteina. 

Haleliwia, Haleliwia, Haleliwia, Haleliwia. 

Mae weiran bigog gylch y crud 
A chraith lle bu creawdwr byd 
Mae gobaith yno’n wylo ar ei glinia’ 
A ninnau’n euog bob yr un 
Yn dal ei gôt i wylio’r dyn 
Yn chwalu pob un hoel o Haleliwia. 

Haleliwia, Haleliwia, Haleliwia, Haleliwia. 

Mae’r nos yn ddu mae’r nos yn hir 
Ond mae ‘na rai sy’n gweld y gwir 
Yn gwybod fod y neges mwy na geiria’ 
Mai o’r tywyllwch ddaw y wawr 
A miwsig ddaeth â’r muriau lawr 
Daw awr i ninnau ganu Haleliwia. 

Haleliwia, Haleliwia, Haleliwia, Haleliwia.

The wall that divides the West Bank and Jerusalem. Credit: Praveen Sparsh

This is powerful imagery, stark and brutal. The star of Bethlehem, held in a fist of steel; the shadow of a gun over the town; no angelic chorus now, but walls and gates and humans determined to ignore a miracle; razor wire around the manger scene, and a guilty humanity that cannot give up its thirst for violence and power and control. These are lyrics that stare right in the face of horrific reality and exhort all of us not to look away: Every serene Nativity play, with its background of Roman occupation (“Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus…”), should remind us not to avert our eyes from the oppression suffered by the Palestinians. Furthermore, the Palestinian plight itself is a reminder of all the other cruelties and tyrannies and wars by which humanity continues to wield others’ suffering as a weapon, “yn chwalu bob un hoel o Haleliwia”: Destroying every single trace of “Hallelujah”. But in the end, a sliver of hope, and an echo of the story of Jericho: The dawn will come, and just as music brought the walls down once, perhaps it can inspire us to do the same again.

Here is Brigyn’s English translation of their lyrics:

The White Star in a fist of steel, 
There’s a shadow of a gun over Bethlehem, 
No white angel singing “Hallelujah”. 
Raising the walls, closing the doors, 
Turning their backs on the value of the miracle, 
The night’s so dark on the streets of Palestine.

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah. 

There’s a barb-wire circling the cradle, 
And a scar where once was the World’s creator, 
Hope is weeping – on its knees. 
Guilty – each and every one of us, 
Holding Mankind’s coat – 
While he destroys every trace of “Hallelujah”. 

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah. 

The night is dark, The night is long, 
Yet there are some that see the truth, 
They know the message is more than words; 
That from the darkness comes the dawn, 
and the music brought the walls down.  
There came the hour for us to sing, “Hallelujah.” 

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.

From that sober moment of grief and hope, I turn to a second favorite, and in particular to my very favorite rendition of it. It’s a well-known Welsh carol, written by David Hughes in the 19th century, and originally intended to be sung in a plygain service, a sort of wee-hours Christmas morning matins. The beautiful thing about plygain carols, though, is their wide-ranging scope; like Brigyn’s Haleliwia, they do not fixate solely on the imagery of Christmas itself, but rather situate the Nativity in a much larger tapestry. In terms of Christian belief, this means looking at the birth of Jesus not merely as an easily-sentimentalized event, but rather in the light of Old Testament prophecy, and of Jesus’s life and ministry, and ultimately of his death and resurrection. It’s the sort of impulse that always makes we want to sing “Et in Terra Pax” (from Vivaldi’s Gloria) on Good Friday, even though it’s technically Christmas music: Because there, on Good Friday, we see what it really costs to promise “and on Earth, peace.” And I think it’s a recognizable impulse even for someone who is celebrating Christmas in a purely non-religious way – the same impulse that is evident in Brigyn’s Haleliwia. As in a total solar eclipse, when for just a moment one can look directly at the sun, so I think it is with these songs, and these familiar feelings of Advent and midwinter and solstice: We feel the need to look squarely at something powerful and important, to face it and acknowledge it and be changed by it. We make amends for our wrongdoings, we reconcile relationships, we make New Year’s resolutions. We hope for things to be better. We hope that we can be better. We yearn for peace.

So, without further ado, give a listen to Sorela, singing “Faban Bach“.

Ar gyfer heddiw’r bore ‘n faban bach, faban bach,
Y ganwyd gwreiddyn Iesse ‘n faban bach;
Y Cadarn ddaeth o Bosra,
Y Deddfwr gynt ar Seina,
Yr Iawn gaed ar Galfaria ‘n faban bach, faban bach,
Yn sugno bron Maria ‘n faban bach.

Caed bywiol ddŵfr Eseciel ar lin Mair, ar lin Mair,
A gwir Feseia Daniel ar lin Mair;
Caed bachgen doeth Eseia,
‘R addewid roed i Adda,
Yr Alffa a’r Omega ar lin Mair, ar lin Mair;
Mewn côr ym Meth’lem Jiwda, ar lin Mair.

Diosgodd Crist o’i goron, o’i wirfodd, o’i wirfodd,
Er mwyn coroni Seion, o’i wirfodd;
I blygu’i ben dihalog
O dan y goron ddreiniog
I ddioddef dirmyg llidiog, o’r wirfodd, o’i wirfodd,
Er codi pen yr euog, o’i wirfodd.

Am hyn, bechadur, brysia, fel yr wyt, fel yr wyt,
I ‘mofyn am dy Noddfa, fel yr wyt.
I ti’r agorwyd ffynnon
A ylch y glwyfau duon
Fel eira gwyn yn Salmon, fel yr wyt, fel yr wyt,
Am hynny, tyrd yn brydlon, fel yr wyt.

The combined language and imagery of this carol just slays me every time. It’s so enormous and yet so intimate. For this morning, as a little baby, the root of Jesse was born; the Strong One come from Bosra, the Lawgiver of old on Sinai, the Just One of Calvary is somehow here a little baby, suckling at his mother’s breast. Somehow, Ezekiel’s living water is on Mary’s knee; Daniel’s true Messiah, Isaiah’s wise child, the promise made to Adam, indeed the very Alpha and Omega is somehow, somehow here, in Bethlehem, on Mary’s knee. So come quickly, come as you are, and find refuge.

“Jose y Maria”, by Everett Patterson

Words fail me when I try to convey the awe that this carol stirs in me.

As I think on these Christmas prayers for peace, I am reminded that peace is not the same thing as the absence of violence. We can build an awful lot of walls and fences and gates and guardtowers in order to make sure that there is no violence, but rather than peace we will find we have built only a prison. True peace requires justice. It means honest work, and leisure, and a dignified standard of living for everyone. It means that “everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid” (Micah 4:4). Mary herself sang it well: “He has shown the strength of his arm, He has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty” (Luke 1:51-53).

Now, as it was then, it is time for something new to happen. Oppressed people, in Bethlehem and everywhere else, have lived far too long under the shadow of guns both literal and figurative. Thankfully, as Brigyn says, mae ‘na rai sy’n gweld y gwir: There are some who see the truth. And there’s a fine old Welsh saying about that: Y gwir yn erbyn y byd.

The truth against the world.

Nadolig Llawen. Merry Christmas.

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