Every year about this time, the old Welsh church in Beavercreek mounts its wonderful day of singing and praise.
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The Gymanfa Ganu (guh-mahn-vah gah-nee) “or sing gathering” is a festival of song and worship. It’s a tradition kept at Bryn Seion church since 1935, though the custom of Welsh 4-part singing goes back much further than that. The Welsh have prided themselves on their gift of song since at least 1176, when Welsh King Rhys ap Gruffydd held a festival of poetry and music. Doubtless the Welsh were singing well before then, since it’s unlikely they burst into song only for King Rhys. Wales has never been a sovereign state in Britain, and its language and customs waned under English dominance. But in the 19th and 20th Centuries, like many national traditions at the time, Wales underwent a renewal of ethnicity which has continued to the present. Though the numbers of Welsh descendants in America are not huge, they are enthusiastic in their embrace of the tradition of choral expression.
The little Welsh church in Beavercreek was built by an immigrant congregation in 1884. It’s a tiny building that houses a tiny group of worshipers today. But once a year, on the fourth Sunday of June, its walls strain to contain the voices of a hundred or more people who come together for the purpose of raising their shared song.
They begin after church service in the morning, and though most of them have not sung together since the previous June, if at all, they assemble a wondrous harmony. The Gymanfa director, who comes to Beavercreek as a guest, guides the singers through their parts, and then leads them into the harmony. It is stunning. Those of us who are not singers, but only admirers, gather outside under a tent where we are encouraged to hum along, or to attempt the Welsh words from books provided.
Understanding the words of the hymns is not so important, really. You do not have to know the words to know the heart that carries them.
The singers sing from 1:45 until 4:00 in the afternoon. So much worship requires some sustenance if the singers are to continue into the evening. They must be fed! The Gymanfa program modestly states, “After the Session, join us for Tea at the Beavercreek Grange.” And, indeed, the Welsh for this tea break is te bach: a little tea. Do not be misled by this disingenuous term. This is as little a tea as one might serve to the entire Welsh Guard on the day when their Colonel of the Regiment comes to visit.
For the modest sum of $5, one enters the Grange Hall to see tables groaning under a spread of sweets and savories that causes the eyes to bulge.
It’s not only the eyes that get large. Let me try to describe the terrible duty we faced: these tables were arrayed with plates of muffins, lemon squares, Welsh cakes (of course Welsh cakes!), lamb and leek tarts (I cannot describe these other than to say, it is worth a trip from wherever you read this to partake the lamb and leek tarts), one-bite brownies, tiny quiches some of Lorraine and some with artichoke centers, sliced cheeses, artichoke nibbles, roasted red pepper and basil sandwiches, egg salad sandwiches, cream cheese sandwiches (I suppose I do not need to say there was never a crust in sight), little berry tarts, cookies of lightness and sugar, rhubarb tarts, pecan tarts, chocolate tarts, tarts filled with something creamy… and all of it decorated and sprinkled and sugared so fine… you can see that by this time, your chronicler was becoming less able to distinguish the treasures before her. There was so much I could never have sampled. I tried. I sent Richard back for more Welsh cakes. All of this was accompanied by a grand silver bowl of limeade, a great glass jar of lemon water,
and cauldrons of strong hot tea. I do mean cauldrons. The tea was served from nice china teapots by the nice Welsh ladies, but it was seen to be brewing behind them in enamelware canner vessels, an endless river of hot tea and milk poured out of gallons. Gluttony is a sin I am told. If so, it carries its own punishment. How we groaned.
Following this small tea, the singers and others repair once more to the church where they begin again at 6 o’clock, lifting up their joyful noise until, at last, all must make their way home in a weary excess of holy utterance.
It is late now, and I am still filled full.