Mediterranean cultures celebrated the warmth of spring and summer, and happily still do. The winter feast of Saturnalia was important astrologically and symbolically, but was only one of a seemingly endless calendar of pagan festivals, and one that clearly predates Greco-Roman civilization. Unlike northern lands where crops came in much earlier, the gifts exchanged could still be emblematic of the harvest-the much-maligned fruitcake dates to these festivities, and decorative lights and candles are still with us.
But then, as now, spring and summer are the times cherished in art and song. The advent of Christianity only reinforced this propensity: The events of the Passion and Resurrection are inextricably linked to Spring, and Easter was and is the center of the Christian year. Early church fathers, like Clemens of Alexandria, felt the relatively unimportant celebration of Jesus' birthday should also be in spring-no date was ever fixed. The great early competitor to Christianity, the Sun god faith Mithraism, was popular in the warrior class. Mithra was born of light and wisdom on December 25th.
When Constantine was converted to Christianity by his mother Helena, perhaps he felt the maternal role of the story should be more emphasized. He oversaw the building of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and by 336 Christmas was celebrated in Rome. Pope Julius I settled all disputes in 350, inaugurating the first direct absorption of another religious tradition by decreeing the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord on December 25.
Acceptance and adaptation...as Mediterranean culture declines in the 4th and 5th centuries, the new faith moves North with those few who kept the light of civilization alive. The Celts, the Anglo-Saxons, these forest peoples-what of their faith? Venerable Bede tells us how Augustine, established as the first Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote how these people celebrated their Yule, their winter feast: Greenery was brought indoors, livestock was slaughtered for feasts, bonfires were lit. Pope Gregory the Great, wise as ever, advised Augustine "nor let them now sacrifice animals to the devil, but to the praise of God kill animals for their own eating, and render thanks to the Giver of all their abundance." So the Celts who climbed the sacred oak with a golden sickle on the sixth day of the winter moon to cut the mistletoe to fall on a white cloak and bring fertility to the worshipper, find their great-grandchildren kissing under a doorjamb with the mistletoe tied above.
In like way, the celebration of harvest's end gradually merged with a Christian ideal. Samhain is given some spooky-spiritual connotations that the practical farmers of the ancient Celtic world would probably have scoffed at-any few hours with an Irish farmer and you get a good idea of just how little is changed in the Celtic temperament. Then as now, those who are gone are close at hand, and the spirits of the goodly dead are invited to join in as the feast is made, the cattle brought back to winter pasture, thanks given for blessings of the year and for help in the long winter ahead. Fairies are abroad in the land, and care must be taken-but do let's remember that the Celts perfected the brewing of beer, and that those feasts were smoothed along with plentiful lubrication, befitting both celebration and storytelling. By the 8th century the Christianized Celts called those days after the old New Years' Feast All Hallows, celebrating those who have passed (those who died for the faith on All Saints, all those who have gone before on All Souls).
Through all this is the natural affection in the British Isles for both the green and pleasant land the various invaders found, and their genuine empathy for the gentler side of the Christian tale, when a God appears as a tiny child. Thus it is that the pagan holly and ivy are brought inside to decorate a manger that is now surrounded by green life even in the coldest winter; the carol, a round dance with its call-and-response refrain that once sang of love and war and spring and drink, becomes by the Middle Ages entirely about those days from Advent to Epiphany. There is a tendency to get foggy about all this, especially since the late Romantic Irish revival. The truth, as always, is much simpler, and kinder. Goodly people making the best of their way in the world also make the best of the earth's turning, its indrawn winter sleep. Our album title comes from one of the songs on this recording, the wonderful broadside ballad published by Henry Gosson (fl. 1603-1640). It is the ultimate answer to any doubters and deep thinkers, and the happiest wish we can make to you who find this music:
Thus none will allow of solitude now,
But merrily greet the time,
To make it appeare of all the whole yeare
That this is accounted the prime:
December is seene apparel'd in greene,
And January, fresh as May,
Comes dancing along with a cup and a song
To drive the cold winter away!
I. Harvesthome: The Ripening of the Year
Our first set bids the warm days farewell. Slieve Gallen Braes is one of the many laments for having to leave Ireland to seek gainful employment away from an oppressed land. The beautiful Harvest Home was collected at the beginning of the last century in a number of Irish pipe and harp tune books. Abbot's Bromley, often incorrectly identified with Christmas, is still danced on Wakes Monday (the Monday that follows the Sunday after Sept. 4th) with dancers wearing reindeer horns to create a symbolic stag fight-you can still see this in Staffordshire, as you could a millennium ago. The protective children's incantation, Twist Ye, Twine Ye was given its most famous expression by Sir Walter Scott in Guy Mannering. The Ash Grove evokes lost love and has been one of the most endearing melodies from Wales. About Turlough O'Carolan, so much has been written about the great rediscovery of this Irish harper who lost his sight to smallpox at age 18, we can only note how this man who loved good drink and a good story would be completely at home with the spirit of this recording (we hear Captain O'Kane, and the planxty, or "tribute" to George Brabazon).
II. Samhain: The Days Grow Dark
A beautiful air Fire in the Hearth (c) Sue Richards, opens this set to get the body settled for the coming cold, and an Irish jig rounds it out. In between, we have two of the Cantigas, or songs, collected by Alfonso X, called El Sabio, "The Wise" (1221-1284). When, during the Albigensian Crusade, the surviving troubadours came to Spain to seek Alfonso's court as a refuge, he took the singers and some of their great body of song and translated the passionate love songs to tell instead of the miracles and virtues of the Virgin Mary. Opulently illustrated, it is one of the masterpieces of world culture. Beautifully in keeping is the Garten Mother's Lullaby, linked to the birthplace of St. Columba in County Donegal. Columba, one of those Irish who saved civilization, was first Abbot in Iona. Sean Donegal is a "deep song" lament for that same county, affectingly sung by Connie McKenna.
III. Advent: Waiting for the Light
All cultures have lullabies; to mix them with a sacred context in another happy invention from Medieval Great Britain. Christ Child Lullaby is from the Scottish Hebrides, Balloo, Lammy from a 17th century Scottish ballad sheet, and the Bressay Lullaby may have been first heard in Shetland. No one admired William Dunbar's Rorate celi desuper more than C.S. Lewis. He said that it was "the most lyrical of all English poems-that is, the hardest of all English poems simply to read, the hardest not to sing." It is a lyrical journey celebrating the coming of the Christ Child. The popular French carol Il est ne ("He is born, the divine child") dates from the 17th century and the rise of monophonic song at the court of Louis XIII.
Ding Dong Merrily on High was the "Branle l'officiel" in Thoinot Arbeau's witty treatise Orchesographie (1588). G.R. Woodward added the popular text and published it with an arrangement by Charles Wood in the Cambridge Carol Book in 1925. Mist Covered Mountains of Home has been claimed by the Irish, but is the Scottish tune "Chi Mi na Morbheanna," although both lands can produce mist aplenty in the winter hills. Don oiche ud i mbeitheil is a rare Irish Gaelic carol, "That Night in Bethlehem."
IV. The Twelve Days
The broadside All Hayl to the Days (now popularly called "Drive the Cold Winter Away") leads us thematically to the true spirit of these celebrations. The Scots claim Drunk at Night, Dry in the Morning, although I would not wish to intervene at any pub where someone made a counterclaim. Yeats' Song of the Wandering Aengus is one of the perfect lyrics, and a sublime meditation at any time; but what better time than at the start of a new year to think on what we have had, what we have lost, and what we would truly seek? Sue Richards set the poem to the Northumbrian tune Gan to the Kye wi' Me. Simple Gifts and Jingle Bells are both products of New England written within a decade of each other. The Shaker Elder Joseph Brackett of the Alfred, Maine community gave us the dance (not hymn) Simple Gifts in 1848. James Lord Pierpont left Massachusetts for his brother John's Unitarian ministry in Savannah, Georgia. There he wrote "a merry little jingle" he copyrighted in 1857 as "A One-Horse Open Sleigh;" we know it by its popular name today. Greensleeves, from the time of Henry VIII, was the subject of the very popular broadside ballad The old year Now away is fled, and from the early 17th century until the late 19th, that is how we heard this tune (brightly, and up-tempo!). William Chatterton Dix contributed to the Victorian habit of adding new lyrics to old tunes for Christmas (see Ding, Dong Merrily), and published his version as What Child is This? in 1865. Christ Church Bells takes us back to the broadside era and one of the great dance publications of John Playford (the 1690 edition)-and the Scots indeed get the last word with Bottom of the Punch Bowl, which the reliable James Stewart Robertson included in his Athole Collection of Scottish Dance Music in 1884.
ROBERT AUBRY DAVIS is the creator and host of several on-going series and specials produced for local and national public radio and television audiences, most notably Millennium of Music, the longest-running and most widely-heard program on early music in history. He is the host of Around Town, the Emmy-Award-winning arts discussion television program on WETA in Washington, D.C., and is currently the Program Director for The Village, the all-folk channel on XM Satellite Radio.
SUE RICHARDS, Celtic harp. The evocative power of the Celtic harp has no greater genius than Sue, called "one of America's brightest stars" (Dirty Linen folk and world music magazine). A four-time National Scottish harp champion, teacher and adjudicator in harp competitions nationwide, Sue also tours with Ceoltoiri and Ensemble Galilei. Sue's recordings include: Grey Eyed Morn, Morning Aire, Hazel Grove; with Ceoltoiri: Silver Apples of the Moon, Celtic Lace, Women of Ireland; and with Ensemble Galilei: A Winter's Night, Music in the Great Hall, and Ancient Noels.
MAGGIE SANSONE, hammered dulcimer. One of America's finest hammered dulcimer performers, Maggie brings a unique vision to the music of the ancient Celts. Featured on CBS-TV "Sunday Morning, NPR's All Things Considered, and The Thistle and Shamrock. Her recordings include: Celtic Meditations, A Traveler's Dream, Dance Upon the Shore, Mist & Stone, Traditions, Sounds of the Season, Sounds of the Season II, Ancient Noels and A Scottish Christmas. Maggie is founder and CEO of Maggie's Music, which distributes over 50 recordings worldwide featuring some of the finest musicians performing today including Bonnie Rideout, City of Washington Pipe Band, Hesperus, Al Petteway, Ceoltoiri, and Ensemble Galilei.
CONNIE MCKENNA, vocals. Irish-American singer Connie sings in the traditional ''old style" called Sean Nós. She studied Irish Gaelic at University College, Galway in Ireland and Irish singing at the Willie Clancy School in County Clare, Ireland. A WAMMIE winner for Best Traditional Irish female Vocalist from the Washington Area Music Association, she is lead singer in the band, Ceoltoiri. Connie's recordings are: Silver Apples of the Moon, Celtic Lace and Women of Ireland.
KAREN ASHBROOK, Irish flute, whistle, hammered dulcimer. Karen is known for her delicate touch, trademark shimmering lilt and ear for authentic Irish ornamentation. Irish reviewer John O'Regan calls her recordings "Celtic music for the mind and body." Karen's recordings include Celtic Café (with Paul Oorts), Hills of Erin, Knock on the Door and recordings with her band Ceoltoiri (see above).
RALPH GORDON, cello. Ralph performs and teaches in the Washington D.C. area and is a much sought after freelance musician, who appears on over 80 recordings. His classical training at Manhattan School of Music provides a technical basis for his playing in many genres of music including the Celtic music heard on this recording.
Cover photo: "Baltersan Snow" by James Brown. Baltersan is a large house (not a castle) possibly built as the residence of Quintin Kennedy, Abbot of Crossgraguel from 1548 to 1564 (the Abbey itself, a half-mile away, dates from the 13th century). While snow is rare in Ayrshire, this evocative photograph illustrates the urgent need to preserve this beautiful structure. For more information on Baltersan, visit: www.baltersan.com
PRODUCTION CREDITS: Producer-Maggie Sansone, Maggie's Music; Associate Producer, liner notes-Robert Aubrey Davis; Production Director, engineer, editing, mixing-Quinton Roebuck; Mastering-Jon Best, Muddy Creek Audio, VA; Art Director-Maggie Sansone; Graphic Artist-Jennifer Johnson; Artist Photos-Irene Young (S. Richards); Chris Moscatiello (M. Sansone); Richard Wheaton (C. McKenna, K. Ashbrook); Lauri M. Bridgeforth (R. Gordon)
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