by Kerry Dexter
Destinations: Ireland, Scotland, Brittany, Cape Breton, and Celtic communities across the world
Music: Narada Presents: The Best of Celtic Christmas [Narada Productions]
by Natalie MacMaster, Cathie Ryan, Kathy Mattea, Altan, The Boys of the Lough, Dordan, Frankie Gavin, and a whole bunch of other musicians
In Ireland, Scotland and other Celtic countries and communities across the world, the four weeks of Advent, the time of Christmas, the turning of the new year on up through Epiphany/Three Kings Day early in January are known as the festive season. This gets to the heart of Celtic Christmas time, a reminder of and invitation to celebration, connection, storytelling, joy, contemplation, and faith. All these things come into play in the music on Narada Presents: The Best of Celtic Christmas.
If you might be thinking, wait, Christmas isn’t really my holiday or hey, I’ve heard way too much holiday music — read on. In this musical celebration of Celtic Christmas you will find gems to enjoy even so.
One disc of this two-disc set is music by Dordan, four women based in the west of Ireland. Flute player Mary Bergin, singer Martina Goggin, fiddler and violist Dearbhaill Standun, and harper Kathleen Lougnane draw on backgrounds that include classical music as well as deep immersion in the traditions of Ireland to create a program that invites to the joy, thoughtfulness, and sharing that make up the anticipation of Christmas.
Their clear instrumentation, lively collaboration, and graceful singing and playing enliven songs and tunes you may know by melody if not by title — the Enniscorthy Carol, for example and Don Oiche Ud i mBeithil/ Because of a Night in Bethlehem — along with original music from the band members, including Mary Bergin’s good welcome for travelers in any season and of any faith called Wayfarer’s Welcome and her evocation of winter and mystery in Draiocht na hOiche/ Magic of the Night.
The music of Dordan offers a fine gateway to the music shared on the other disc of The Best of Celtic Christmas. If you’d like music which suggests winter and adds just a hint of jazz to Celtic tradition, then you’ll want to make time to listen The Snowy Path from Altan.
The band members of Altan come from Ireland’s far northwest, in Donegal, where it does indeed often get very snowy in winter. A touch of jazz also flavors Christmastime in Ashland, a tune from whistle master Cormac Breatnach and guitarist Martin Dunlea. Both men hail from Ireland, but they wrote the tune inspired by a winter trip in Virginia.
William Jackson from Glasgow, one of the Celtic world’s most renown harp players, and Mairi MacInnes, a gifted singer from South Uist in Scotland’s Western Isles, join together for a thoughtful exploration of Silent Night, which MacInnes sings in Scottish Gaelic. Nouel is a traditional hymn celebrating the Christ Child, sung in Breton with echoing harmonies by Ensemble Chorale du Bout du Mond from Brittany, a group formed to carry on the strong Celtic traditions of that area of northwestern France.
Fiddle player Natalie MacMaster comes from Cape Breton in Atlantic Canada. Here she joins up with country and bluegrass Grammy winter Alison Krauss as the two offer a song for those weary at the holidays called Help Me Make It Through December, which was written by fellow Cape Bretoner Gordie Sampson.
Kathy Mattea often finds inspiration and renewal for her award-winning country and Americana music through time she spends in Scotland, and it is to Scotland’s Western Isles she turns for the traditional song she offers here, Christ Child Lullabye.
Cathie Ryan, first generation Irish American, honors that community with her choice, and her quiet, understated version, of a carol written by two Irish American writers, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.
There are many more gems to discover on Narada Presents the Best of Celtic Christmas, from seasonal jigs and reels to carols to hymns. Whether your travels take you to the lands and communities of Celtic Christmas or not, you may travel there in your imagination with these musicians. Through all of this music you’ll find good and lasting companions for your own travels, during a season with a story of travel at its heart.
Read more about these and other Celtic Musicians in a series at Music road.
Note: It is the policy of A Traveler’s Library to let you know about affiliate links. There are links in this article to Amazon, where you can listen to bits of the album, and do your shopping if you wish. It does not cost you any more, and you will be benefiting Music Road and A Traveler’s Library.