A Gift Of Christmas Music To Share With You
I was surprised and quite pleased recently with the decidedly positive reaction I got from posting my personal Thanksgiving playlist. Now that the season of Advent, Solstice, Christmas is on us, I thought it might be a good idea to repeat the exercise.
This is the darkest time of the year. Just poke your nose outside and you realize why our ancestors liked to gather in the warmth of their fires at the end of each year and celebrate, well...celebrate being alive. In agrarian societies of old, December was the very nadir of the year's light. It held the shortest day, and while a lot of winter remains, things only get better from here on. It's why the ancients lit fires, decorated houses and halls with evergreens to remind themselves that even during the deep cold there was still growth. It's why they brewed beer and spirits, sang and danced, and created rituals around celebrating their survival, their renewal for another year.
When I look at pagan celebrations around the Solstice, and then at the feast of Christmas, even at the elevation of the relatively minor Jewish holiday of Hanukkah at this time of year, I see a consistent theme; a theme of light and hope against a backdrop of darkness and fear.
Over the centuries, and particularly in western Christian cultures, that theme has added layer after layer of custom and ritual. Songs, stories, poetry, food, colors, and scents have combined to create our palette of memories. Each of the above are in themselves, emotional triggers among even the grinchiest of us. Notwithstanding the irritating commercialism that has grown around this time of year, we still give ourselves a little more permission to dwell for a while in the past, remembering times of youth, maybe those loved ones who have passed. Sentimentality, even nostalgia is allowed and maybe welcomed to our hearts and homes.
Against this backdrop, I have assembled this list. It has 32 pieces and is over two hours long. It is perhaps—as we are in December—a little more reflective for me than celebratory, not because I have any problem with the celebrations (hot whiskey anyone?), but because that is just the way I am wired at Christmas.
I had an amazingly happy childhood growing up in Clonakilty, West Cork. In the 1960s and 70s in rural Ireland, there wasn't a lot of money around. My dad was a butcher and my mom—his true partner in life—ran the household. There were nine of us kids, and for me, the second youngest, I never knew anything but joy at Christmastime. I know now of course, that all wasn't as rosy for those charged with keeping the household going, arranging for the Santy gifts at the end of our bed, the Christmas finery we all wore to early morning mass. Both of my parents, Jim and Joan, are gone now—both lived well into their 90s—but what they gave me, all those joyous Christmases and so much more, resurrect themselves and come dancing around me in bright, laughing colors each and every December.
I hope you enjoy this collection of music. It's from many sources. Some are published CDs; some are taken from the treasure-trove of recordings we have made over 16 years of our yearly live show, A Christmas Celtic Sojourn. A few were part of compilations I curated back in the day, a few of which are now out of print, it seems. Most have Christmas or mid-winter themes, but others are simply emotionally connected for me, in a very personal way, to this time of year and its sentiments. Each track is unique in its own way and I have added comments and background notes to below to give insight into why they were chosen. Feel free to share.
I intend to add an hour to the front of this playlist each year from here on. So if you have a suggestion, let me know. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Title, Writer/Artist/Reader, Album (or source)
The time stamp is the approximate start time of each selection on the continuous playlist file. You can toggle back and forth somewhat to start the playlist in different places on the file, or to continue listening perhaps, to a different segment.
00:00: "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band, A Tapestry of Carols
One of the most beautiful versions of this song from one of my favorite Christmas albums ever. It's the more common melody used in England.
03:37: “A Daisy in December,” Win Horan, Solas, Natalie Hass et al. Christmas Celtic Sojourn, live recording, WGBH only
Our first selection from a live recording. Winifred Horan from Solas wrote this tune and it settled the audience at the Cutler Majestic into its own reverie of thought at the beginning of the second act of 2009. Just one of those tunes not to make you sad, but as my friend, the Northern Ireland singer, Tommy Sands says "to take the sadness out of you."
08:43: "Na Hu O Ro," Fiona Kennedy, Celtic Heartbeat Christmas
Fiona Kennedy is a singer, and TV personality, and film producer from Scotland. While not specifically "Christmas," this beautiful atmospheric song in Scottish Gaelic, first came to my attention when the Celtic Heartbeat label was founded by Paul McGuinness, U2's manager. Their first Christmas CD had this song on it.
14:17: "Oh Holy Night," Aoife O’Donovan with Solas, Christmas Celtic Sojourn, live recording, WGBH only.
Every year, we ask the lead singer of A Christmas Celtic Sojourn to bring us their version of "Oh Holy Night," the iconic Christmas song that has already had thousands of versions recorded. Each version has been quite different in tempo, key, and emotional approach. Am I biased to choose this particular one? Maybe. It's from my own daughter, Aoife, who has graced our stage twice in the 16 year history. This recording was made in 2007. One of the reasons I love it particularly is that Aoife is joined by—oh my—Alasdair Fraser, Natalie Haas, Win Horan, Chico Huff, and Eamon McElholm on Piano. It's the pure simplicity of the approach with Horan taking a high violin part toward the end that stamps it for me.
18:23: "Gloomy Winter," Bonnie Rideout, A Scottish Christmas
Robert Burns wrote the words to "Gloomy Winter's" now awa... But as in many of Burns "songs," older airs were used to fit the words. But this exquisite tune has become known by this song name since. It is at times excruciatingly beautiful and certainly evocative of a Scottish Christmas. Bonnie Rideout is one of the early activists in the resurrection of the cello in Celtic music melody playing.
20:45 "The Kerry Christmas Carol," Sean Keane with Solas, Christmas Celtic Sojourn, live recording, WGBH only
My father's favorite Irish Christmas song, and from one of his favorite singers, the great Sean Keane from Galway. Keane brought this to us in 2008, and it has since passed into our tradition. It reflects the belief in Ireland that the Holy Family wandered the road on Christmas Eve seeking shelter. This led to the tradition of candles being lit and placed in the windows of all the little houses. And the fire would be kept lit to welcome them in.
24:26: "Oh Come Emmanuel/What Child Is This," Carol Noonan, Christmas
This is from Carol Noonan and friends and what friends she has! Listen to how brilliantly creative this arrangement is. Noonan holds onto the plain-chant provenance of this advent carol by using a drone/modal approach, not changing the chord throughout the two verses she sings. She then relieves this tension musically by perfectly morphing into "What Child Is This (Greensleeves.)" Just please listen to Duke Levine's guitar work, it will make you cry!
28:50: "The Wexford Carol," The Boys of the Lough Comfort and Joy, A Christmas Celtic Sojourn
This is one of the old carols from Kilmore Quay in Co. Wexford, a collection that traces its origins to the Normans (French) who occupied the area for centuries. Still strong Norman traditions survive there. If ever traveling in Ireland, head to Wexford. It doesn't get as much attention as other parts of Ireland, but is gorgeous and steeped in history and culture of all sorts. Christy O'Leary, who sings this song with The Boys of the Lough, was with us for our 2011 version of A Christmas Celtic Sojourn. He is from Kenmare in Co. Kerry, but makes his home in Stockholm in Sweden.
32:31: "Draoicht na hOiche," Dordan, A Christmas Celtic Sojourn
Dordan could be described as a traditional Irish chamber group. This is one of those pieces translation: The Magic of the Night - that allows your imagination to soar over Ireland and see clearly as James Joyce writes, the snow "falling softly on the bog of Allen, and further westward softly falling into the dark, mutinous Shannon waves."
35:58: "A Breton Carol," The Chieftains, Bells of Dublin
The Chieftains invited many different artists to join them on what has become a well-known collection of Celtic Christmas songs and tunes. Brittany, of course, is a true Celtic culture and many collaborations between Irish, Scottish, and Breton musicians, have developed over the years. Nolwenn Monjarret heard here on this haunting melody, is a well-known Breton singer.
39:40: "Shalom Aleichem," Tony McManus and Billy Novick, A Christmas Celtic Sojourn: Live
This one might take you by surprise. Tony McManus, originally from Scotland, joined us in 2005 for A Christmas Celtic Sojourn. I just LOVED this Jewish tune he brought us, "Shalom Aleichem." I subsequently heard him playing it with Billy Novick, Boston's own clarinetist extraordinaire, and invited them both back to the stage the following year for a nationally televised version of A Christmas Celtic Sojourn. And you know what, it fit the sentiments I speak of above perfectly.
43:52: "Dante’s Prayer," Aoife O’Donovan, Jed Wilson, Jake Silver, Lissa Schneckenburger, Christmas Celtic Sojourn, live recording, WGBH only
When we started A Christmas Celtic Sojorn as a live show in 2003, we did not know what we had. That first show sold out rapidly and we made it three shows the next year, 2004. Aoife, our daughter, had just graduated from the New England Conservatory and had been collaborating with all these amazing players, Jed, Jake, and Lissa. We invited them to be part of the program and they brought this Loreena McKennitt song, which pulls at every heart string I can imagine. "When the dark night seems endless, please remember me. Remember me."
47:54: "Misteriou Joaius," L'Ensemble Choral du Bout du Monde, A Christmas Celtic Sojourn
This Breton Choir came on a CD from Green Linnet way back in the early 90s and was a household staple for us as our family grew in Newton. It seems to be now out of print, as does sadly, the collection I put together for Rounder Records many years ago called A Christmas Celtic Sojourn. When this Christmas song cranks into gear, my wife Lindsay and I often imagine being in one of those magnificent Breton cathedrals, on a snowy Christmas Eve, perhaps in Kemper, or St. Malo.
51:14: "Leanbh Ghil Mhilis Dordan," Dordan, A Christmas Celtic Sojourn
Back to that gorgeous, Chamber traditional group Dordan, this time with a song in Irish about the beautiful sweet child, and the fullness of hope for the world.
54:46: "A Midwinter Waltz" The Boys of the Lough, A Midwinter’s Waltz
Another of those simply evocative Irish tunes, this time a waltz, appropriate for the season, and a lovely sorbet between songs.
59:12: "Emmanuel," Loreena McKennitt, A Midwinter Night’s Dream
Loreena McKennitt's modern/medieval take on the classic "Oh Come Emmanuel." She chooses the Latin version to great effect.
1:04:09: "Personent Hodie/Sanctus," Connie Dover, Somebody
Staying with the Latin. Connie Dover from Kansas City, asked Phil Cunningham (of Silly Wizard fame) to produce this CD in the early 90s, and they blended the classic "Personent Hodie" with an older Irish religious song of blessing and lamentation. There is a class of song like this in Ireland that often blended Latin and Gaelic languages. Their melodic style was as much European ecclesiastical as Irish.
1:10:20: "Ta Me ‘naois Caoimhne," Navan, Christmas Celtic Sojourn, live recording, WGBH only
From the very first A Christmas Celtic Sojourn concert at the Somerville Theatre in 2003, this group of four harmony singers from Madison, Wisconsin wowed us with this song. It translates as "I am keening" or literally "I am remembering." A song of loss that presages the sadness the new child and his mother are facing.
1:13:40: "O Na Kaerra Burzud," L'Ensemble Choral du Bout du Monde, A Christmas Celtic Sojourn
Another from Brittany and that extraordinary choir.
1:18:57: "In the Bleak Midwinter," Nuala O’Donovan with Seamus Egan, Simon Chrisman, Hanneke Cassell, Lissa Schneckenburger, Laura Cortese, Amanda Cavanaugh, Christmas Celtic Sojourn, live recording, WGBH only
Our youngest child, Nuala, had been singing cameos with us since 2003 when she was just 10. As she grew to a young teen, she continued to sing with us. I believe though this song was recorded in her final year with us. The song is straightforward and part of the standard Christmas canon, but when it came together, I realized—again—just how blessed we were to have Seamus Egan as our music director. He is truly gifted and this has become my favorite version of this Christmas carol ever since.
1:22:47: "Carol of the Birds/Ave Verum," Corpus Natalie Haas, Maeve Gilchrist, Jenna Moynihan, Liz Knowles, Haley Richardson, Mairi Campbell, Windborne, Christmas Celtic Sojourn, live recording, WGBH only
The "Carol of the Birds," a Catalan air is one I have loved since first seeing footage of the great Pablo Casals playing it for JFK and Jackie at the White House not long before the assassination. Long after she recorded it, I also came across Joan Baez's exquisite soprano singing of it on her iconic Christmas album, Noel. With cellist Natalie Haas in the cast in 2017, I could not resist including it. But Maeve Chilchrist—our assistant music director—gave the whole piece its brilliant and seamless form. We followed it with Mairi Campbell and Windoborne's version of Mozart's "Ave Verum Corpus."
1:28:02: "Cradle Song," Aoife O’Donovan, Jed Wilson, Jake Silver, Lissa Schneckenburger, Christmas Celtic Sojourn, live recording, WGBH only
Again, from that terrific Somerville Theatre, A Chrismas Celtic Sojourn #2 in 2004.
1:32:01: "Coventry Carol," Loreena McKennitt, A Midwinter Night’s Dream
Another Loreena McKennit approach to a traditional Christmas song. I have always felt that McKennit's sometimes "new age" approach was rendered of the highest quality by her surrounding herself in studio and in concert, with truly superb musicians. You can here that principle manifested in her songs on this playlist.
1:34:19: "Sou Gan," Steve Schuch, A Christmas Celtic Sojourn
A Welsh tune here. The air to a lullaby that simply translates as "go to sleep."
1:36:44: "The Wren," Kate Rusby, When Mortals Sleep
Kate Rusby from Yorkshire, delights in taking traditional songs and making them her own, often with innovate musical clothing that change the impact of well known lyrics and melodies. In this song, which is a variant of "The King," and also also known as "Joy, Health, Love, and Peace," she uses a Colliery (Coal Mine) Brass Band, the likes of which were popular in the heyday of that industry in earlier times. (Yorkshire was Coal Country in England, like Kentucky is here.) The song is traditional, sung on the day after Christmas by groups of raucous musicians, often in costume, going from door to door to collect money - or at least, some food and drink. "The Wren," a symbol of winter, was in ancient times, killed and brought around in a bush to signify the end—death—of winter.
1:40:00 "Rug Muire Mac Do Dhia," Cara Dillon, Upon a Winter’s Night
I'd never heard this song until hearing Cara Dillon's Christmas CD last year. It's in Irish and translates simply as "Mary bore the son of God." I love the structure of it. Intriguing, and I need to find out more but included it here as it was simply too beautiful to omit. Cara and her husband Sam, were with us for our 2008 edition of A Christmas Celtic Sojourn. Her full CD is simply gorgeous!
1:43:06: "Land o’ the Leal," Hannah Rarity, Maeve Gilchrist, Chico Huff, Natalie Hass, The Fretless, Christmas Celtic Sojourn, live recording, WGBH only
Hannah Rarity from Scotland was our main singer on stage in 2018, and what an impact she made. She brought to us this gorgeous, sad song of missing a loved one who has died. One of the most powerful Scottish songs I know. "The Land O' the Leal," is the land of the faithful, or a version of heaven. She is joined on this very sparse arrangement by Maeve Gilchrist on harp, and Natalie Haas on cello.
1:47:27: "The Wexford Lullaby," Mairead ni Dhomhnaill with the Voice Squad (John Renbourne) Traveler’s Prayer
This is a variant of the "Wexford Carol," which I have also included above. This is more of an optimistic version, and imagines what the Christ Child will achieve in life. I chose it for the truly unique harmony vocals of The Voice Squad, an Irish trio whose voices blend and warm the blood like a hot whiskey in front of a turf fire on a cold, damp night in Connemara. This track is actually on a CD by John Renbourne, the guitarist.
1:52:00: "Don Oiche Ud/I sing of a night in Bethlehem," Maeve Gilchrist, Eilis Kennedy, Solas, Christmas Celtic Sojourn, live recording, WGBH only
This is an old song in Irish. At our A Christmas Celtic Sojourn in 2016, I asked if Eilis Kennedy, who was with us from Dingle, and Maeve Gilchrist, could alternate English and Irish verses. Little did I expect what they came up with - an actual melding of the two languages. It actually made me cry when I first heard it. Oh my.
1:54:52: "Huron Carol," John McCutcheon, Winter Solstice
The air to the Canadian carol called "The Huron," which was written in 1642 by a Jesuit missionary, and used the language of the Huran people and many of their spiritual beliefs. John McCutheon is one of the best hammer dulcimer players around, and I just love his collection, Winter Solstice.
1:57:39: "I Wonder as I Wander," Aoife O’Donovan, Jed Wilson, Jake Silver, Lissa Schneckenburger, Christmas Celtic Sojourn, live recording, WGBH only
Our final recording from that epic 2004 edition of A Christmas Celtic Sojourn from the Somerville Theatre. Aoife O'Donovan takes the traditional American carol with a tip-of-the-hat to John Jacob Niles. The jazz-influenced wrapping of her superb band mates here makes for something truly special.
2:01:50: "The Twelfth Day Carol," Robbie O’Connell and Friends, Comfort and Joy
We come to a close with an appropriate ending from our friend and oft-time collaborator, Robbie O'Connell. "Now to conclude our Christmas Mirth..." it begins. And since it's on the twelfth day, that will just about do it!
I loved putting this together. Hope you enjoyed it. Feedback welcomed. Send and email to email@example.com