Celtic at Christmas: Music
December in Ireland and Scotland is time of short days, long nights, rain, wind, snow, sleet, and the occasional clear day with sparlikng sun or frosty night filled with an extravagance of stars. It’s a time for connecting, reconnecting, repentance, renewal, faith, and celebration. Here’s music to consider along with these ideas, and which arises from them.
Combining both music and image, harpist and singer Aine Minogue has created a dvd called Winter Meditation, which she calls “a visual and musical companion for the season.” It is, as she opens doors of thought and reflection through images and music which suggest both Celtic legend and myth along with the possibilities of landscape. Though Minogue tells stories, they are ones which, both visually and musically, leave plenty of room for the viewer to consider how all this resonates.
When fiddler Eileen Ivers was thinking of making her holiday album, An Nollaig, she decided she wanted to create the sort of feeling she’d known growing up in New York as the child of Irish immigrants. It must have been a happy and lively household that Ivers knew, then, filled with traditional carols and lively jigs, with many friends and family joining in. The Wexford Carol, coming from twelfth century Ireland and today sung by people the world around, is one track. Ivers also includes Do You Hear What I hear? from American folk tradition, and Don Oiche Ud i mBethill (One Night in Bethlehem) from the Irish. There’s also Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring (“Bach with an Irish twist,” Ivers says) and Christmas time is Here from Vince Guaraldi. She closes things out with the carol O Holy Night. “Just like the ornament son the Christmas tree,the tunes on this recording have been lovingly passed down through the generations,” she says. Ben Wittman, Greg Anderson, and Susan McKeown are among those who sit on the project.
Ivers was one of the founding members of the now internationally recognized band Cherish the Ladies. CTL’s seasonal album, On Christmas Night, opens with lead singer Heidi Talbot on the title track which is both a celebration and an invitation to music at Christmas tine. The album is a lovely mix of tune and song, some of it well known and some less familiar. A standout is Talbot's lead and the band’s work on the lullabye The castle of Dromore. There’s also a fine set leading from The Distressed Soldier to Angels We Have Heard on High to The Fairy Reel, and a quietly understated version of O Holy Night. Oh Little Town of Bethlehem is paired with Limestone Rock and The Kerry reels to close out the collection.
Matt and Shannon Heaton also offer both song and tune on their graceful album Fine Winter's Night.. Dust of Snow is a fine jig, while First Snowfall of Winter imagines a seasonal meeting in snowy Victorian Boston. Star Song is a new setting of a sixteenth century poem celebrating the mystery of the season, while Julius the Christmas Cat is a gentle song which joins an unsung hero of the season as he prepares for the Holy Family. It Came Upon the Midnight Clear, The Wexford Carol, and Fisherman’s Lullaby are also among the wintery mix the Heatons offer.
Narada presents the Best of Celtic Christmas is a two disc set. One disc, The Night Before, is music by the Ireland based group Dordan. It offers a range of atmospheric tunes and songs that open the door for the anticipation, wonder, questioning, and looking forward that goes along with winter nights and days at the holiday. The other disc begins with Cathie Ryan offering a spare and thoughtful version of It Came Upon and Midnight Clear, and continues on to Scottish style fiddler Bonnie Rideout closing things with a bold take on O Come All Ye Faithful. Along the way, there are songs and tunes form Natalie MacMaster with Alison Krauss, Frankie Gavin, Kathy Mattea, John Whelan, Altan, and others.
Wherever this holiday season finds you, Nollaig shona daoibh -- merry Christmas to you and yours.
Kerry Dexter is the Music Editor for Wandering Educators.
Kerry's credits include VH1, CMT, the folk music magazine Dirty Linen, Strings, and The Encyclopedia of Ireland and the Americas. She also writes about the arts and creative practice at Music Road . You may reach her at email@example.com.