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'A Celtic Christmas': A tuneful tradition

Tomáseen Foley’s “A Celtic Christmas” takes audiences beyond shamrocks, leprechauns and paddy wackery — all stereotypes of Ireland.

“There will be highs and lows with stories that celebrate how the music and dance have become so popular,” says singer, dancer and multi-instrumentalist Eimear Arkins. “Some of the stories are somber, some heart-wrenching, some with cheerful excitement.”

Expect to be transported to the remote parish of Teampall in western Ireland. It’s the night before Christmas in the 1940s or ‘50s. Foley, the show’s founder and director, recreates the warmth of the small community where he was born as people gathered on winter evenings to enjoy companionship during lulls in farming activities.

“It was a pre-industrial time. We didn’t have electricity. We traveled by horse. In that era storytelling was like breathing. It was something everybody did,” he says.

This, Foley’s 23rd annual show, introduces audiences to the multi-talented Arkins.

“She’s an unbelievable artist, a singer in the traditional Irish sense,” he says.

Arkins earned her first dance title when she was 9 years old and now holds 11 solo All-Ireland Fleadh Cheoil titles. She’s represented Ireland at large festivals and competitions in Europe and Asia, and recently produced a solo album titled “What’s Next?”

Foley’s show will be presented at 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 22, at the Craterian Theater, 23 S. Central Ave., Medford. Tickets are $38, $35 and $32, and can be purchased at craterian.org, at the box office, 16 S. Bartlett St., or by calling 541-779-3000.

“Some think Irish music is just diddly-ai,” Arkins says. “It’s all the same, lots of repetition. But if you listen carefully, you hear differences.”

Arkins’ fiddling style has roots in County Clare, where she grew up, and she sings a distinctive vocal style known as port a béal. Port means jig and béal mouth, hence literally “mouth jig.” Often known in English as lilting, port a béal sometimes accompanied dance when no instruments were available. Generally performed solo, it uses meaningless syllables instead of words. The speed and rhythmic sounds sometimes resemble the rapid-fire footwork of many types of Irish dance performed in hard-soled and heeled shoes.

“Many shows nowadays use hard shoes because they make noise and people are attracted to the beat,” Arkins notes. “This gives dancers a chance to show off their versatility. Irish dancing is focused on the feet. Long ago more dancing was close to the ground. There was less jumping, and dancing took place in a smaller space. Nowadays there’s more focus on jumping and traveling.

“But there’s more than one kind of Irish dance — it’s not just River Dance. Some dances are done in soft shoes,” she says.

Whether performed in hard or soft shoes, dancers frequently hold their torsos almost rigid with their arms down along the sides of their bodies. According to Arkins, there are many stories about the origin of this custom.

“There was a time in Ireland when dance halls were banned or severely regulated or under the watchful eye of the parish priest, but people still wanted to have a good time. So they danced in the kitchen. If you’re dancing in the kitchen with your arms flying around, you’d knock things off the shelves. And having the arms pulled down, even if only loosely, gives more support to the feet.”

World-champion Irish dancer Marcus Donnelly will present traditional dances in the show, and Alyssa Reichert returns to “A Celtic Christmas” after her tour of China with the well-known show Riverdance.

Grammy Award-winning guitarist William Coulter is music director; piper and dancer Brian Bigley plays uillean pipes, flute and whistle; and dancer and member of Irish band Billow Wood plays accordion.

Foley provides the show’s connecting thread with storytelling that weaves together Christmas, traditional Irish customs, and lots of humor. The story behind one of the program’s songs, “A Penny to Bury the Wren,” integrates all of these elements.

“Despite the fact that Christmas was a holy time,” Foley says, “many traditions reach far back in time, before Christianity.

“On St. Stevens Day, the day after Christmas, groups of young musicians and dancers would dress up in all sorts of outrageous costumes, and they’d have a tiny wren that would have been killed that day. They went from house to house singing and performing — and collecting money. They asked everyone for a penny to bury the bird.

“At the end of the day, when all the money had been collected, they had a big party for everyone who had given them money. Nobody knows what all this means. This is one of those crazy Irish things that don’t make any sense. But who cares? In the end, it’s very upbeat.

“I hope that people leave the theater with renewed faith in Christmas, in community, in their neighbors and themselves,” Foley says, as he wishes everyone “Nollaig shona duit” — Merry Christmas.

Storyteller Tomaseen Foley brings together troupes of Irish singers, dancers and musicians each year to create "A Celtic Christmas" at the Craterian Theater in Medford. tomaseenfoley.com