Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy with their six children. The fiddling family joined forces to produce A Celtic Family Christmas and took to the road to showcase the CD. Photo courtesy of True North Records

Fiddling family shares tradition of Celtic Christmas

By  Mickey Conlon, Catholic Register Special
  • December 18, 2016

Mix eight parts family and a whole bunch of music, friends and dancing and you’ve got the recipe for a perfect Celtic Christmas in Natalie MacMaster’s family.

The renowned Cape Breton fiddler, along with husband and fellow fiddler Donnell Leahy and their six offspring, have done just that for Christmas 2016 as they have released their first Christmas CD and hit the road for a cross-Canada tour to share what a Celtic Christmas is all about.

After 30 years in the business, it was about time MacMaster finally released a Christmas recording.

“I don’t know why it took that long,” said MacMaster, who, with husband Leahy, makes up Canada’s first family of fiddling.

“Perhaps it was because it was never a priority, I was making other recordings and a Christmas CD was something I always wanted to do, but I was too busy with other stuff.”

Christmas music always seemed a natural fit for MacMaster, especially with her devoutly Catholic, not to mention musical, upbringing in Cape Breton.

Everything came together this Christmas, and the duo released A Celtic Family Christmas before embarking, with six kids in tow, on a Christmas tour that is taking in points between Vancouver Island and their home base near Peterborough, Ont.

“Whatever the reason, the stars aligned, it’s the right time,” said MacMaster, on the line from Vancouver during the early stages of the five-week tour. “Donnell and I made great efforts to pull it off and we did. I love the recording.”

Fans seem to agree. The CD is out of stock on Amazon and tour dates have been selling out.

Through a mix of song and dance, A Celtic Family Christmas tells the story of the night before Christmas in the MacMaster/Leahy household.

It brings a Celtic edge, with whistles, bagpipes, fiddle and Cape Breton-style piano, to a lineup of familiar Christmas songs like “What Child is This,” “Little Drummer Boy” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” among other classics of the Yuletide season.

An added bonus is performances by five of the six children, ranging in ages from four to 11, who join their parents on stage, dancing, adding some vocals and carrying on the family tradition as fiddlers, as well as bringing some levity to the high-energy show.

MacMaster is aware that having kids on the road can be tough, “but as Donnell said, it’s much harder travelling without them.” The idea, she says, is to pass along the family traditions.

Indeed, it wouldn’t be Christmas without music in this household. MacMaster and Leahy come from a long line of musicians who have stayed true to their Irish and Scottish roots.

“I grew up with traditional music in Cape Breton,” said MacMaster, and Leahy has played and toured with his 10 siblings in the family band, Leahy.

On stage, the MacMaster/Leahy show covers everything from the seasonal favourites of the new album to traditional Celtic tunes. MacMaster and Leahy will take turns showcasing their own varied styles, while sharing the stage most of the night with their seasoned band, which includes Mac Morin on piano, Matt MacIsaac on pipes, whistles, guitar and percussion, Shane Hendrickson on bass and Tim Edey on guitar and accordion.

While it may be Christmas each night of this current tour, there will still be a little family time to allow the clan to take care of the traditions of the season.

They have reserved a few days at home during the southern Ontario portion of the tour, before finishing off their 27 tour dates with a two-night stand in Peterborough.

In a nation as vast as Canada, it’s tough to tour a Christmas show cross-country.

“There’s a lot of places to fit in and we’re maxed out,” said MacMaster.

It means there will be no east coast touring this time around, but the duo have already booked a number of Christmas shows in the Maritimes to wrap up the 2017 Christmas run.

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