A Great Boston Tradition: ‘A Christmas Celtic Sojourn’

However many years “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn” lasts – and it’s about to hit 19 – there’s little doubt that the 2020 and 2021 editions will loom large in the collective memories of those involved in the music-song-dance-and-storytelling production, perhaps none more so than the show’s creator and guiding spirit, Brian O’Donovan.

 In 2020, with Covid-19 an overwhelming concern, “Christmas Celtic Sojourn” went to an all-virtual format for the first time. A year later, the show is back live and in-person – albeit on a limited basis, on Dec. 14 at Rockport’s Shalin Liu Performance Center (sold out) and from Dec. 17 to Dec. 19 at the Cutler Majestic Theatre in Boston. It also will once again be available online from Dec. 18 to Dec. 26.

In both instances, the decision as to what course to follow was a tough one – but, O’Donovan believes,  the right one.

“Last year, we felt it was our responsibility to shut down the live, in-theater presentation of the show, so as to help keep everybody healthy,” he explains. “Now, as many aspects of life are cautiously, carefully coming back, we feel it’s our responsibility to stage it in the safest way possible. That means a limited number of performances in only two venues, which is unfortunate, given the enthusiasm we’ve seen at the other places where the show has run – but again, a precaution we believe is necessary. 

“Frankly, it would be easier to not do ‘Christmas Celtic Sojourn’ – that was certainly the case last year. This year, presenting the show in reduced fashion, we’re dipping our toe in the water. But we’re confident we can make this happen, and we feel strongly that we should try, to remind us all of our shared humanity as we celebrate this season.”

Heading up the roster of artists for 2021 are the multi-instrumentalist Seamus Egan and the harpist-pianist Maeve Gilchrist, who by now are thoroughly ensconced in their additional roles as, respectively, music director and assistant music director. Moira Smiley returns as the featured singer, and the a cappella harmony quartet Windborne will be back again as well. For the fiddle-piano duo of Katie McNally and Neil Pearlman, this is its “Christmas Celtic Sojourn” debut, while Jenna Moynihan once again adds her fiddling skills. Other returnees include Owen Marshall (guitar, bouzouki, harmonium), Yann Falquet (guitar, accordion, jaw harp) and mainstay Chico Huff (bass). Ashley Smith-Wallace, the featured dancer in 2019, will serve as dance director this go-round. And the show wouldn’t be complete without Lindsay O’Donovan (O’Donovan’s wife) supplying piano, vocals and ambient good cheer. 

O’Donovan and his cohorts don’t think of “Christmas Celtic Sojourn” so much in terms of a show and its audience, but rather of one community built around a love of fellowship and tradition. Over the years, he has heard from numerous attendees – many of them listeners to his “Celtic Sojourn” radio show on WGBH – who have made the production a part of their holiday activities. But the community’s support for “Christmas Celtic” was never so evident as in 2020.

“Last year was a huge leap of faith: We told the artists and staff, ‘Let’s go the virtual route and see what happens,’ but we had no way of knowing whether we’d be able to pay anyone,” recalls O’Donovan. “So, everybody – from the performers to the video and audio crew to the production staff – worked incredibly hard to make it the highest quality possible. And what happened? Some 7,000 households watched the show online, many of them in real time. And many people donated money on top of that. 

“That told us that our community knows what we do, they feel it has value – and they own it.”

A closer look at this year’s line-up:

•Seamus Egan, a co-founder of Irish American supergroup Solas, is known not only for his prowess on banjo, guitar, mandolin and whistle but also for his talent in composing and arranging tunes, as demonstrated on his 2020 album “Early Bright.” His current ventures include the Seamus Egan Project, gathering friends and musical guests for various events and tours – among them fellow 2021 “Christmas Celtic Sojourn” musicians Jenna Moynihan and Owen Marshall.

•Maeve Gilchrist is one of the more innovative Celtic harpists around, demonstrating a skillful technique as well as a genius in merging traditional harp with world music, jazz, and other contemporary styles and sounds.

•Moira Smiley is a self-described “vocal polyglot” whose work as a soloist and with the band VOCO embraces Irish and Appalachian music as well as Eastern European traditions. 

•Katie McNally’s exuberant, passionate fiddling and Neil Pearlman’s dynamic piano-playing – mixing elements of jazz, Latin, and other musical forms – make for a fascinating modern outlook on Scottish and Cape Breton music while maintaining a healthy respect for those traditions.

•Jenna Moynihan, her fiddle playing rooted in both Scottish and Appalachian old-time traditions, has in recent years come to the fore as a fine singer of traditional and contemporary songs.

•Performing songs from numerous folk traditions around the world, Windborne’s members – Lynn Mahoney Rowan, Will Thomas Rowan, Lauren Breunig, and Jeremy Carter-Gordon – grew up in the tight-knit, far-reaching New England folk and traditional music scene, participating in such events and activities like Revels, contra and morris dance, Village Harmony, and the Country Dance and Song Society. 

•Owen Marshall is a member of Maine-based quartet The Press Gang and has frequently appeared in many Boston-area musical collaborations.

•Yann Falquet is an active, creative acoustic guitar player on the Québécois scene who has drawn inspiration from the playing of the accompanists of different cultures (Brittany, Scandinavia, Ireland, North America).  

•One of the longest serving “Christmas Celtic Sojourn” regulars, Chico Huff has played bass with innumerable prominent artists across the spectrum, from folk to rock to jazz.

•The daughter of two Irish dance teachers, and one of the youngest American females to win the World Irish Step Dancing Championship, Ashley Smith-Wallace went on to become well rounded in dance, including ballet, hip-hop, jazz, and musical theater.

Even with the return to in-person performances, O’Donovan says, “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn” is remerging in an arts and entertainment landscape that has changed irrevocably since 2019. “Virtual/livestream was a great value last year, and now it’s a supplement instead of an alternative, but there’s no question it will be part of what we do going forward. Many artists, organizers and venues experimented with the virtual/livestream format during the lockdown, and its possibilities are still being explored, so it will most certainly have a presence.

“All that said, live music is clearly where it’s at, especially as regards folk and traditional music, where the ability, and the need, to connect with others is so vital. Perhaps we might’ve taken for granted how important it is to us: I know when I went out to my first performance, I actually started to cry; it was, and is, a very emotional experience, and a reminder of what we share as a community.”

All information about “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn” is available at christmasceltic.com.