A candle in the window, a loaf of bread with caraway seeds on the table, a holly wreath at the door: those Christmas traditions each had origin in Ireland. So are the traditions, not unique to Ireland but well celebrated there, of sharing time with family, reaching out to friends old and new, mending differences, and sharing music both joyous and reflective.
Irish musicians are on the road across the United States this holiday season, sharing their traditions and inviting you to join in.
Fiddle player Eileen Ivers has toured the world with her music, with her own band Immigrant Soul and before that as a star of Riverdance and a founding member of Cherish the Ladies For her holiday concerts, though, Ivers stays close to home. Ivers was born and raised in the Bronx, to family strong in faith and strong in connections to Ireland. “Neither of my folks had many material things as they grew up in large families in County Mayo, in the west of Ireland. Family and friends were at the core of Christmas festivities,” Ivers says. She looks at the tunes and songs in her Christmas show and her holiday recording in that same way,connecting the generations, building bridges between friend and stranger, and making the season brighter. In her Christmas show, you are likely to hear reels such as Oiche Nollaig, Christmas Eve, and The High Road to Linton, jigs such as The Frost is All Over, and carols including Hark the Herald Angels Sing. You might also hear a bit of Bach with an Irish fiddler’s twist. Ivers will be on tour with her band through most of December, on dates that will take them from the Pacific Northwest to Arizona to Alabama, to Vermont. They’ve recorded some of the music they’ll be playing on the album An Nollaig.
Oisín Mac Diarmada of the band Téada is the man behind the Irish Christmas in America tour. The men of the band, along with guests including harper Grainne Hambly, piper Tommy Martin (if you’ve seen the Celtic Woman shows, you’ve seen his work), singer Séamus Begley, and Irish dancer Brian Cunningham, offer a welcoming evening of music, dance, songs, and stories that get at the heart of the family feeling of Ireland at Christmas. You could hear a story about a 19th century Irish emigrant’s letter home back to Ireland trying to describe tea bags, or learn about the idea, common in Ireland and in Irish American homes as well, of having a candle in the window on Christmas eve. “There’s always a bit of narrative in any concert of traditional music,” Mac Diarmada says, “ but I thought it would be nice to bring in a bit more of the informality of it. a bit more of the culture and the excitement.” Music, dance, and stories in the program cover the of days leading up to Christmas, Christmas Eve, the day itself, and St. Stephen’s Day, which in Ireland is a big day for socializing, visiting, and getting together for playing music.
Begley will no doubt be bringing along some of his dry West Kerry wit, as well as songs and tunes. Irish Christmas in America is going into its sixth year, “and the singers we’ve had — Michael Londra, Cara Dillon, Karan Casey, Cathie Ryan, Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh — just the top singers,” Mac Diarmada says. “Séamus is with us for the second year now. I get the position of driver on the tour, and Séamus would sit up in the passenger seat telling stories and singing all the day’s journey — I didn’t think I could do without that again this year!”
The Irish Christmas in America tour will begin on the west coast, and travel to dates along the eastern seaboard. There’s a recording out of winter themed tunes from the show, as well, and all the singers mentioned above have their own recordings out as well.
If you are in the New England area at the holidays, another holiday tour to mark on your calendar is Fine Winter’s Night, from Matt and Shannon Heaton. The couple offer a program that includes carols, popular Christmas songs, and quite a few original songs and tunes as well. This, too, is a family friendly show. It is as engaging and welcoming of the spirit of the winter season, and of the connections at this time of year between Ireland and America, as are the larger band based tours. Their holiday album, also called Fine Winter’s Night, is a good taste of what you may hear.
You could, in fact, have a very fine winter season taking in a concert from each of these groups. Traditional music fan, occasional listener, or just looking for a bit of seasonal warmth, these musicians have got you covered. “Being the time of year that it is, I like the fact that people might come out who aren’t die hard traditional music fans,” Oisín Mac Diarmada says. “They’ll come because it’s a Christmas program, and the whole family will come, and it might be a way of introducing people to traditional music and dance.”