What Is Celtic Christmas Music?
I love Christmas music. Every year, I anxiously wait to hear Christmas music on the radio. I've gotten even more excited about hearing new Celtic Christmas music over the past few years. However, what counts as "Celtic Christmas" music is more varied than anyone should really imagine.
To better understand, "what is Celtic Christmas music?", let's start with some definitions. First and foremost, we should make it clear that Christmas is NOT a Celtic holiday. Any discussion of Celtic Christmas music needs to understand that concept first.
What is Christmas Music?
Christmas music is music that celebrates the Christmas holiday. Wikipedia describes it like this:
Christmas music comprises a variety of genres of music normally performed or heard around the Christmas season, which tends to begin in the months leading up to the actual holiday and end in the weeks shortly thereafter.
By this definition, "Celtic Christmas" music works just as well as any other "genre of music" for being Christmas music.
Yay! We can Celts can feel secure about celebrating Christmas with Celtic Christmas music! *breathe a sigh of relief*
Christmas music originally was music celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. Later traditions and themes include Santa Claus, snow, Christmas trees, and the spirit of the holiday.
What is Celtic music?
At a basic level, Celtic music is the music of the Celtic people who traveled from Western Europe and settled in the seven Celtic nations: Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Isle of Man, Brittany, and Galicia.
In the Celtic Music Magazine, I divide Celtic music into four primary types:
- Traditional Celtic Tunes
- Celtic Folk
- Celtic Rock
- Celtic New Age
Most Celtic music has a variety of instrumentation that captures and honors the tradition of the Celtic culture. However, some Celtic music is comprised of the lyrical themes that reflect the culture of the Celts.
Traditional Celtic tunes are usually performed on the traditional Celtic instruments which include the fiddle, bagpipe, flute, bodhran, mandolin, Uilleann pipes, and harp. Numerous contemporary instruments have been added to this mix including the tenor banjo, the bouzouki, accordian, concertina, autoharp, and guitar.
I play Celtic Folk music on the autoharp. The autoharp is not a traditional Celtic instrument. To compensate, I try to add vocal inflections into my songs as well as lyrics that reflect my Celtic culture.
Celtic Rock has quite a few variances that include metal, hip hop, reggae, world beat, and the ever popular, Celtic punk. What sets it apart are the upbeat rock rhythms, the lyrical themes, and usually there is at least one traditional Celtic instrument in the mix.
Celtic New Age capitalizes on "Celtic music" as marketing term. It usually means it is "mood music", or the music that is often associated with the more haunting side of Celtic music. It is most often composed on electronic keyboard and occasionally features a few acoustic instruments.
To most of the music industry, and the major record labels, "Celtic music" is the same as my definition of Celtic New Age. It has little to nothing to do with Celtic culture or tradition. While I'm far from being a Celtic purist, but personally I think most of the music that I'd define as Celtic New Age is NOT Celtic music. It's New Age music with a marketing twist.
New Age Christmas Music Is NOT Celtic Christmas Music
As you can see, there's a lot of room for defining "What is Celtic Christmas music". Do a search on iTunes or Amazon. You'll be blown away by the variety of music defined as "Celtic Christmas".
However, most of the "Celtic Christmas" music you find is New Age Christmas music, or it's just classical music that is called "Celtic". You'll hear a lot of classical piano, guitar, and violin too. You'll hear classical music vocalists. And you'll hear sweeping mood sounds that Clannad and Enya popularized on the keyboard.
Let's be clear. This is NOT Celtic Christmas music!
It's New Age music, nothing more. That rubish has nothing to do with the music of the Celtic people. Yes, the music may have a Dorian mode, but that doesn't make it "Celtic". It may be moody, but just because Clannad and Enya created something awesome with keyboard effects, doesn't mean every cool effect is "Celtic".
So What is real Celtic Christmas music?
Real Celtic Christmas music celebrates Christmas culture and it celebrates our Celtic culture by touching on the traditions of both. I believe that it is not just Christmas music by Celtic musicians. Nor is it Celtic music by Christmas musicians. It's a beautiful fusion of both.
One of the reasons I am so proud of A Celtic Christmas, my Celtic Christmas compilation CD, is that it captures both the heart of the Celtic culture and the spirit of the Christmas season.
Yes, I would agree that a couple songs on the album may not be overly Christmas-y or overly Celtic-y, but most of the individual songs do. The album as a whole conveys Celtic Christmas at its best. There are very few Celtic Christmas albums that do near as well.
The best Celtic Christmas albums will have some traditional Celtic instruments. They'll have themes that are relevant to Celts. They'll have some traditional Christmas songs fused with reels and jigs. Listening will make you think of our Celtic culture. It'll make us think of a warm fire, snow, dancing, singing, and shouts of joy. You might wonder what Santa Claus does on St. Patrick's Day, or what the fae do during Christmas. You may hear songs about the birth of Jesus or the songs of the Solstice and mistletoe. But above all, you should feel proud of being a Celt at Christmastime.
The Best Celtic Christmas Albums
I compiled a list on Amazon of some of the best Celtic Christmas albums out there. It's a fantastic list that also captures the heart of Celtic culture and Christmas. There's albums by The Chieftains, Cherish the Ladies, Eileen Ivers, Bonnie Rideout, and The Irish Rovers. Each album captures a different aspect of "what is Celtic Christmas music".
At first listen to The Chieftains' Bells of Dublin, I was impressed by the Celtic aspect, but disappointed by the Christmas. As the album played, the whole feel of a Celtic Christmas blossomed. I was overflowing with Christmas craic.
Cherish the Ladies offered a bit of a poppy Nashville production, but the music, wow! You'll hear Christmas songs smoothly combined with reels and jigs. And a lot of beautiful songs.
Eileen Ivers is a brilliant fiddler who created an outstanding album of Celtic Christmas music. Yes, her vocalist sounds like one of the many overproduced bad endings to a Disney film, but Eileen's fiddle makes it awesome!
Bonnie Rideout offers a look at the Scottish side of Celtic Christmas music with an entirely instrumental album that celebrates both her Scottish culture and Christmas music.
For me, The Irish Rovers have the best offering of fun Celtic Christmas songs smoothly fused with traditional reels and jigs. It's my favorite album this year.
The line is not well-defined between what is good Celtic Christmas music and what is not. When musicians submit to the Irish & Celtic Music Podcast, I tell them that is up to them to decide whether they are "Celtic" or not. I say that, but I also know that I'm not gonna offer a lot of promotion for artists who lack any Celtic style, instrumentation, themes, or whatever.
It's the same with Celtic Christmas music. You can call your album "Celtic Christmas", but that doesn't make it Celtic. The real Celtic Christmas music is a beautiful fusion and celebration of Celtic and Christmas music and culture.