Mystery, mirth on Christmas CDs

Cara Dillon is interested in the “faith and legend” of Christmas.

By Colleen Taylor

Each year, I marvel at Celtic Christmas music—a subgenre that seems to dominate the holiday music market. No two sounds seem as perfectly paired as festive bells and fiddle strings. In the holiday spirit, I’m reviewing some of my favorite Celtic Christmas albums and groups (some new, some old) so you can add one or two tracks to your own Irish Christmas playlists.

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Cara Dillon, “Upon a Winter’s Night” (2016)

Dillon and her producer/husband Sam Lakeman aimed for a holiday album that was not run of the mill, advertising “there are no jingle bells here!” Instead, their interests were in the “faith and legend” of Christmas. “Upon A Winter’s Night” reaches far back in history in order to propel the holiday album tradition to new heights. The inspiration for the album’s style seeks a history much older than “A Christmas Carol” (1843), looking back into a Celtic, quasi-magical vision of the Winter season. Dillon’s “The Wexford Carol,” for instance, sounds like an homage to the New Age genre, shrouded with mystery and mournful violins. Similarly, there is no other way to describe her “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” or “Mother Mary” than “haunting.” The same can be said of “O Holy Night,” a stunning acapella, harmonized version that sings of the uncanny. This album is not the standard holiday atmosphere of chestnuts roasting on an open fire, but mystery, magic, and something entirely fresh.

Eileen Ivers, “An Nollaig” (2007)

Although less recent than most choices on this list, Ivers’s “An Nollaig” deserves mention because it is undoubtedly one of the best, if not the best Irish Christmas albums ever made. It’s an Irish-American cultural fusion of traditional Irish, blues, even gospel and soul styles mixed together to electrify the Christmas cultural spirit of America. A bluesy, Irish “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” is the album’s keynote piece, showcasing Ivers’s prowess as a musician and innovator.

Eileen Ivers’s “An Nollaig” is a candidate

for the best Irish Christmas album ever.


Kate Rusby, “Of Angels and Men” (2017)

I recently reviewed “Of Angels and Men” in the column, and it comes up here as my choice for 2017 Celtic Christmas releases. Available since November, Rusby’s fourth Christmas album offers new interpretations of some of her most famous Christmas jingles. If Dillon offers mystery, Rusby offers mirth. There is laughter in nearly every track on this album—clever turns of phrase, jaunty horns and fiddles, and even a rewritten, satiric version of “The Holly and the Ivy.” After three Christmas albums and twenty-five years in the music biz, Rusby still sounds utterly youthful, regenerating centuries-old Christmas melodies into modern folk creations.

Cherish the Ladies, “Christmas in Ireland” (2015)

The sounds of 18th and 19th century Irish Christmases ring bright in Cherish’s third Christmas album. It’s filled with brilliant sets and traditional Christmas jingles made Irish, such as “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” “Good King Wencesclas,” or one of my favorites, “The Holly and the Ivy.” The album is also enriched by stories and poems, like “An Irish Christmas Night,” and some exquisite ballads, like “All the Valley Down.” Most remarkably, this album captures the familiar Christmas paradox of the émigré—returning home to be with loved ones, yet missing them even in their presence, seeing what you’ve left behind, knowing from what you’ll have to depart again. These sentiments surface in the song “The Christmas Letter” and air “American Wake.” The album moves from the joy of reunion to the longing of those who aren’t there on Christmas, letting you live in both places, both feelings at once. “Christmas in Ireland” will move your feet and your heart.

Cherish the Ladies’ “Christmas in Ireland”

will move your feet and your heart.


I was recently introduced to Affinití, a classical group made up of three women, Emer Barry, Aisling Ennis, and Mary McCague. Thankfully, I found these ladies just in time for Christmas, the season in which they shine. The group has been touring the States since 2014, but they seem to have really hit their stride with Christmas music. Their classically trained voices haunt the choruses of the familiar “Holy Night.” Even if you don’t like classical music, this rendition can’t help but captivate you—the combination of Barry’s soprano and Ennis’s harp is truly enchanting.

Affinití shine during the Christmas

Finally, Celtic Woman deserves honorable mention—one of those steadfast presences on nearly every radio station’s Christmas playlist, whether Irish or not. This year, Celtic Woman released an extensive twenty-track compilation of their greatest Christmas hits, “Best of Christmas,” including tracks sung by members old and current. I was reminded that Celtic Woman still reigns champion for the best rendition of “Ding Dong Merrily on High.”

As I come to the end of my list, I’ve realized that all my picks this Christmas are women. This was not intentional, but I’m nevertheless delighted by the result. It shows—for this music critic, at least—women are producing some of the best work in Irish music today. Perhaps it’s a reason to celebrate Nollaig na mBan with a bit more enthusiasm this year.