An Irish Christmas

Irish Christmas

In clear voice and high spirits, Kelly Kennedy sings Irish Christmas melodies.

Learn more: Tavern balladeers


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on This is "Behind the Scenes" where you meet the people who work here. That's my job. I'm Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions.

America's Christmas traditions grew from a convergence of cultures as generations of immigrants brought old customs ashore.

The Irish are known as a musical people. Do you find that true? I suppose you would, or you wouldn't do it.

Kelly Kennedy: Coming from a family of six children and eight and nine aunts and uncles, every sort of Sunday was a singing party – yes, I would say, from my experience.

Lloyd: So what did the Irish bring, when it was time for the Irish to bring something? I know the Germans brought the Christmas tree.

Kelly: Right. Well, you know, I'm not sure. I think some of the traditions that are in Ireland are an amalgamation of things that were in England as well. There is a tradition that they still do in the west of Ireland, too. You leave something that – and we've kind of turned this into a Santa Claus thing – in Ireland you would leave something for the Christ child to eat when he came on Christmas Eve, that night. So you would leave a jug of milk, maybe a loaf of bread, a pint of Guiness, it depends. And of course you leave the door or window open a crack to let the Christ child in. We have the tradition here of leaving out cookies and milk for Santa. I don't know that the two are intertwined, but it's interesting to consider that kind of connection there.

Lloyd: On the other had, why not? You're leaving something to eat for whoever's bringing something to you.

Kelly: And it is, I think in Ireland certainly, it is a religious holiday. So, the consideration of the birth of Christ at that time was huge. So all the traditions that sprang out of that, and the songs come from the Christian tradition of the Christmas season. Santa Claus appeared in Ireland much later, as he appeared here much later as well.

Lloyd: Oh yeah, I've been talking to some people here who have studied Christmas in the 18th century, and you wouldn't recognize it, or compare it to Christmas today.

Kelly: No, no. They were lucky if they even acknowledged the day, actually.

Lloyd: It was a big church holiday, which I suspect it was in Ireland as well, for everybody.

Kelly: Music, I think. Again, certainly music came from everywhere to this country, but music was a huge part of people's life earlier on than it is now, I think. Certainly singing was an everyday part of life. Not everybody played an instrument, but everybody had a voice. So, all were encouraged …

Lloyd: Not me.

Kelly: Well, everybody's got a voice. Whether or not you can carry a tune is another question.

Lloyd: That's a separate idea, huh?

Kelly: But ah, singing was a huge thing in my family growing up. And I know it was big in my ancestors' families as well. It was a common occurrence to sit around the kitchen table and sing of an evening for entertainment. If somebody played an instrument, all the better. Singing was something that was part of your lifeblood.

Lloyd: OK, I'm remembering something that was told earlier about music in the 18th century at holiday time. No such thing in the 18th century as Christmas carols.

Kelly: No.

Lloyd: You sang hymns.

Kelly: Well certainly, particularly early in the 18th century, and the end of the 17th century, at church, you were lining out the Psalms. So the hymns were considered too secular to sing in church. But they were appropriate to sing at home, or sing in a tavern.

So, hymn-singing in Ireland – and actually, I have a couple of what would be called 18th-century hymns that are still sung today in the same places where they evolved in Ireland. And they're sung every Christmas Eve. They're just traditional songs that are about the Christmas season and that have been continuous since the 18th century. They're sung here in this country as well.

This is a very old carol from Wexford County, from the 18th century. It's still traditionally sung on Christmas Eve in Ireland.

The darkest midnight in December
No snow, nor hail, nor winter storm
Shall hinder us for to remember
The night that on this babe was born

With shepherds, we are come to see
This lovely infant's glorious charms
Born of a maid, as the prophet said,
The God of love in Mary's arms

No costly gifts can we present him
No gold, no myrrh, no odor sweet
But if with hearts we can present him,
We humbly lay them at his feet

Then let us praise that we may
Our church and clergymen defend
God grant us peace in all our days
A merry Christmas and a happy end

Lloyd: I wonder when carols got to be more popular than hymns. Do you have any idea?

Kelly: Well, the term "carol" doesn't necessarily refer to Christmas. In other words, carols were songs that grew out of the scriptures that weren't necessarily from the bible or from written liturgical word. So, there were lots of carols about all the other  –  you know, there was Michaelmas  –  the older saint's days that we don't celebrate in this country, per se. And then there were Christmas carols. They were sort of ecumenical takes – would that be the right term? Yes, on ecumenical scripture. Musical ecumenical takes on scripture.

Lloyd: I like that description. We're going to keep working on it now ladies and gentlemen, we'll get it down to where it's absolutely perfect. I suppose that's true.

Kelly: That's the sort of churchy side. That doesn't address the very lively tradition of dance and house instrumental music, combined with singing, that came out of Ireland that I've been involved in. I grew up partly in the East Coast and partly in San Francisco, where we were members of the Irish-American society there in San Francisco. Every year, we were sent off to sing in the Irish singing competitions, and watch all the little dancers. And it all grew out of this tradition of playing music in your home. So people had parties and dances and music in their houses. In fact, some of the set dances people are doing today in Ireland are called "house sets" because they originated in the houses. When they got too big, they'd go out in the crossroads and dance.

I think we've become kind of insulated in terms of our entertainment. We don't make it for ourselves so much anymore. We rely on our iPod or our TV or our computer or whatever. So you go back to a slightly older way of life, and it makes sense. Singing is a self-conscious event, too. Nowadays people are self-conscious about singing. Still in Ireland, I think they're not. It's more a way of life.

This is an English carol, but this is the version they sing in Ireland, which has Scots-Irish overtones. It's a very sprightly version of "The Holly and the Ivy."

Oh, the holly and the ivy
When they were both full grown
Of all the trees that are in the wood
The holly tree bears the crown

Oh, the rising of the sun
The running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing all in the choir

Oh the holly tree bears a blossom
As white as any milk
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
All wrapped up in silk

Oh, the rising of the sun
The running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing all in the choir

Oh the holly tree bears a berry
As red as any blood
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To do all sinners good

Oh, the rising of the sun
The running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing all in the choir

Oh the holly tree bears a bark
As bitter as any gall
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
For to redeem us all

Oh, the rising of the sun
The running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing all in the choir

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