Four Albums for an Irish Christmas… and One from Scotland for Good Measure
Submitted by Kerry Dexter
Music is a big part of any Irish Christmas celebration. You’ll hear familiar carols, hymns, and popular seasonal songs such as White Christmas and Little Drummer Boy. There will be jigs, reels, and songs from the tradition as well, alongside, at times, new songs. Want to sit in on such a holiday music session? Listen to these albums and you feel as though you’ll be doing just that.
Tommy Sands is from County Down in Northern Ireland, right along the border between the Republic and the North. This background comes through his album To Shorten the Winter, sometimes in unexpected ways. There’s the song The Bushes of Jerusalem, with Sands seeing Jesus in the guise of a revolutionary, and the song Like the First Time It’s Christmas Time, a piece which connects with the hope for lasting peace in Ireland, north and south. There’s also the classic rock song Whiter Shade of Pale. Singing that is a memory that takes Sands back to the idea of connection as well. “At Christmas time all barriers, musical and others, melted in the wake of a few sods of turf, we threw back our heads and sang,” Sands says, remembering being part of such evenings of music at the holidays north and south of the border. Liam O’Flynn adds pipes to the song, a very Celtic touch that works well.
Eileen Ivers thinks of the holiday songs she loves as ornaments on the tree: some new, some old, all well loved. On her album An Nollaig: An Irish Christmas, Ivers kicks off things with a rousing version of Hark the Herald Angels Sing, infused with a bit of an Irish jig to go along. Ivers is a fiddle player — she handles banjo and mandolin on An Nollaig as well — so there is a good selection of tunes along with the songs. There’s a lively set that begins with the Christmas Eve Reel, and a fine set beginning with Apples in Winter. Susan McKeown comes along to sing One Night in Bethlehem, in English and Irish. There’s Christmas Time Is Here, too. “Being Irish American, I had to include one of my all time favorites from the classic A Charlie Brown Christmas,” Ivers says. She also offers Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring, adding an Irish twist to the well known piece by Johann Sebastian Bach.
Matt and Shannon Heaton have several fine original songs on their holiday album Fine Winter’s Night, along with carols and tunes you may know, as well. Of those latter, Matt sings lead on the Wexford Carol, which is thought to go back to Ireland in the twelfth century for its origin, and Shannon handles the lead on the nineteenth century carol O Little Town of Bethlehem, which the Heatons have arranged as a lullaby. Fisherman’s Lullaby is a song which has roots in African American spiritual tradition, changed, adapted, and added to through the Heatons’ Irish American musical focus. In First Snowfall of December, Matt creates a story of what might have happened one night in the Victorian era in the Heatons’ hometown of Medford, Massachusetts, while on the title track, Fine Winter’s Night, Shannon considers what gifts may be found in the sometime harsh sides of winter weather.
Narada Presents: The Best of Celtic Christmas is a two disc set. One disc is all music by the west of Ireland based group Dordan. It is called The Night Before, and comprises reels and jigs, songs and tunes, bringing in the atmosphere leading up to Christmas and the joy of holiday celebration itself. The Christmas Reel, the Mistletoe Waltz, and the Wayfarer’s Welcome are especially worth note.
The second disc comprises fifteen tracks, beginning with Cathie Ryan offering a quiet, understated take on It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, and going on to include tracks from Boys of the Lough, Frankie Gavin, Natalie MacMaster, Mairi MacInnes, and others. Well chosen, well sequenced, and a wide range of music that yet works well together to give a true flavor of Celtic Christmas.
Bonus Recording: Duan Nollaig- A Gaelic Christmas
Fiona J. Mackenzie lives in the highlands of Scotland, and the language she sings in is Scottish Gaelic rather than Irish. If you’re looking for a bit of a different Celtic flavor to your holiday, though, you’ll enjoy her recording Duan Nollaig- A Gaelic Christmas. She offers traditional carols, both ones you may know and lesser known ones, as well as songs such as The Twelve Days of Christmas and The Robin, all sung in Scottish Gaelic.
Kerry Dexter writes about music, travel, the arts, and Ireland for publications including Strings, Ireland and the Americas, Wandering Educators, Perceptive Travel and Music Road.