Maybe Christmas looked a bit different long ago — people didn’t shop for gifts on Amazon, for instance — but we still ring in the holiday season by celebrating family, friends, neighbors and life together.
That thankful community spirit during this time of year has always existed in Ireland, the country that brings us not one, but two shows this December, both titled “A Celtic Christmas.” The first, “Tomáseen Foley’s A Celtic Christmas,” hits Keene’s Colonial Theatre stage Friday, Dec. 13; and “A Celtic Christmas with Ishna” will be performed Friday, Dec. 20, at the Peterborough Town House.
The band Ishna was formed around a decade ago by Peterborough-based couple, vocalist Ciarán Nagle and violin player/vocalist/composer-arranger Tara Novak. The couple has performed together since they met in 2005 on a bus at the beginning of a Christmas tour with Nagle’s show, The Three Irish Tenors (Nagle was also the lead singer of Riverdance for two years).
They moved to Peterborough a year ago after finding the town during a hiking trip — they were living in Somerville, Mass. at the time.
“We both come from classical backgrounds,” he said. “Our interests in music have always taken us down many paths.”
While Nagle, born and raised in Dublin, Ireland, has a background in opera and oratorio recital, Novak’s is a blend of jazz fusion, folk, rock and musical theater. The pair formed their band to more deeply explore Irish and folk repertoire as well as showcase their vocal harmonies and their compositions as well as Novak’s arrangements of Irish instrumental music.
Nagle described Ishna as he and Novak’s “love child.”
“Ishna was born out of us exploring music lineage and what really calls to us,” he said.
He made the distinction that the show has roots in Irish tradition.
“It’s not pub Irish,” he said. “There’s a lot of artistry that goes into it.”
The musicians that perform with them in the band also come from a multi-spectrum of musical backgrounds. An Irish Christmas show wouldn’t be complete without traditional Irish dance, but Nagle explains the world-class style Ishna features isn’t what people expect.
“It’s called Sean-nós, which means old-style — it’s the first style that would have existed,” he said. “The body is much looser. It’s closer to a folk dance but more complex.”
Another tradition of an Irish Christmas is storytelling. With Ishna, it’s in the form of fun banter on-stage.
“We go from cracking the most ridiculous Irish jokes you’d ever find to talking about recent and historical events,” he said. “Every song presented has a story behind it.”
An example of a traditional Irish Christmas song in the band’s repertoire is “The Wexford Carol,” a song from the fourth century that is one of the oldest that was notated. Another is “The Wren Song,” based on a historic Irish tradition on St. Stephen’s Day, the day after Christmas, when groups of young men travel door to door singing, dancing and playing music.
“It’s very personal,” said Nagle. “People go to Ireland and fall into a home gathering or a bar and get involved in a sing-song — it just happens.”
Ishna’s aim is to bring the audience into this magical experience.
“It’s warm and inclusive,” he said.
Tomáseen Foley based his show on his own Irish traditions. Born and raised on a small family farm in the remote parish of Teampall an Ghleanntáin in the southwest of Ireland, he grew up in a thatched-roof home with stone walls and no plumbing or running water — and for a good chunk of his childhood, no electricity.
At the same time, there was no glare of phosphorescent screens from televisions, smart phones, computers or tablets — so entertainment was a little different than it is today.
“We’d get together and sing Christmas songs, play music and tell stories,” he said, the stories being about things that happened in people’s day-to-day lives. “I developed the idea for (the Christmas) show around those nights at the fireside in 1950s Ireland.”
Storytelling is the show’s bedrock.
“There’s a huge hunger in people’s hearts to sit in the darkness and listen to a storyteller,” said Foley. “You create your own images — it’s a much more active way of listening.”
Foley, who serves as the show’s native storyteller, creates this remote Irish farmhouse Christmas Eve scene in southwest Ireland with four professional traditional Irish dancers, a singer/multi-instrumentalist, guitarist and uilleann pipe/Irish flute/whistle player.
“It’s a window into a world that no longer exists,” he said, “where neighbors gathered and everybody knew everybody and there was a real communal sense. We’re trying to keep the authentic voice of that world.”
“Tomáseen Foley’s A Celtic Christmas” hits town Friday, Dec. 13, at 8 p.m. at The Colonial Theatre, 95 Main St., Keene. Tickets are $25-$39 and can be ordered by calling 352-2033 or at thecolonial.org. “A Celtic Christmas with Ishna” will be held Friday, Dec. 20, from 8 to 11 p.m., at Peterborough Town House. Tickets are $29-$39 and are available on Facebook at the Peterborough Concert Series page or at eventbrite.com.