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Trad Beat Bah, humbug: a ho-ho-hum Christmas compilation

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Earle Hitchner

A THISTLE & SHAMROCK CHRISTMAS CEILIDH, Green Linnet Records GLCD 1208.

Just when you thought it was safe to get into the spirit of the holidays, another compilation hinting at Celtic Christmas music comes along. This one was compiled by Fiona Ritchie, host of the nationally syndicated "Thistle & Shamrock" radio show.

It’s not that the music Ritchie selected is bad. In fact, much of it is quite good from the likes of Liz Carroll, Cherish the Ladies, Lúnasa, and Manus McGuire. But the connection to Christmas is often tenuous at best. Many of these tracks are hardly unique to the holiday season and can be appreciated just as easily beside a sunny beach in July as a blazing hearth in December. Only John Renbourn’s "I Saw Three Ships" and the Tannahill Weavers’s "Auld Lang Syne" bear any direct link to Christmas or New Year’s.

Altan’s "The Snowy Path" and Capercaillie’s "Snug in a Blanket" are pertinent, if you stretch the concept, and the sentiments expressed in Niamh Parsons’s fine rendition of "Reconciliation," it can be argued, are in keeping with peace on earth, good will toward men.

That’s about it. Unless you’re watching "A Charlie Brown Christmas" on mute as you listen to the other tracks, don’t expect to get a real seasonal surge here. Instrumentals by the House Band and Patrick Street certainly meet the expectations raised by the word "ceilidh" in the compilation’s title and should get you up and dancing. But you can get the same result by buying the bands’ albums or other, better Green Linnet compilations issued in the past.

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Another disappointment is the long liner note — virtually a short story — by Ritchie about the annual Christmas ceilidh in her village.

It’s charming in places, with some appealing wordplay and the kind of descriptive color and arcana that can illuminate a local scene.

But Ritchie’s gusher prose frequently leaves you wanting less, and it ends with a resounding thud: "Welcome to the Christmas Ceilidh on Radio Highland and an hour of great Green Linnet music. Here’s Altan with ‘The Snowy Path.’" This commercial advertising plug, masquerading as narrative resolution, would make Burma Shave proud.

If you’re hungry for something distinctly Celtic and Christmasy, there’s another Green Linnet compilation of far more conceptual substance: "Noëls Celtiques," a 1998 collection of mostly songs, all beautifully sung in the Breton language.

Aside from overtly Celtic and/or traditional considerations, I recommend Dylan Thomas’s "A Child’s Christmas in Wales," the classic 1952 C’dmon recording narrated by the Welsh poet himself and available as a Harper Audio CD since 1994. Also check out "Bing Crosby: The Voice of Christmas," a 1998 double CD on MCA/Decca of holiday songs from an Irish American whose immense popularity sometimes overshadowed just how skilled a vocalist he was.

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