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The heart of the holidays

As they say in the old familiar carol, " 'tis the season to be jolly." And, as there are officially 12 days of Christmas, we're entitled to stretch out our jolliness until at least Jan. 6.

People celebrate the holidays in many ways and among these there are usually a few things they do every year, almost as a ritual. These things become part of the celebration and help define the season. For some, it's visiting with family. Either you go there or they come to you. You exchange gifts, have a meal together and catch up on what everyone's been up to since the last time the family was together. Someone always brings their special salad, cranberry sauce or candied yams. People count on it. It's a tradition.

Then there are things you and your immediate family do every year, like attending the "Nutcracker" ballet, watching "It's a Wonderful Life" or "A Christmas Story" on TV or DVD, or catching a production of "A Christmas Carol." Fortunately, these are classics and are generally immune from the need to be refashioned to suit contemporary audiences.

Hollywood and Broadway seem to think we need new versions of old shows. The latest product in this trend is the new film version of the classic 1951 sci-fi thriller, "The Day the Earth Stood Still." Part of the thinking is that with all the advances in technology and special effects since the 1950s, audiences have come to expect more realistic and fantastic images on the screen. They even want more gimmicks and gadgetry on stage.

The other argument for redoing old movies and stage shows is that there are people out there who aren't familiar with the original version. They never saw it the first time around, so they don't know what they're missing.

Usually what audiences end up missing in the remake is the often subtle message of the original. It gets lost in the wizardry of special effects and computer-generated graphics. Character development, dialogue and a well-nuanced plot take second place to short bursts of action and dazzling spectacle.

But in the grand scope of things, there are some things that don't necessarily need to be changed in order to remain "relevant." There is something timeless about seeing Jimmy Stewart contend with a series of misfortunes and regain his faith in humanity. And he does this in black and white. The 1946 film was colorized in 1986 and again in 1989, but the original black and white version is the one that shows up on TV every year. American Film Institute chose "It's a Wonderful Life" as No. 11 on its list of the 100 best American films ever made and the No. 1 most inspirational American film of all time. Not much you can do to improve on that.

"The Nutcracker" is often produced with subtle changes in the costumes or the choreography. But dance companies are wise not to tweak their version too much so that it ends up not fitting with the music and spoiling our memories of what it looked like the first time we saw and heard it as children.

One of the events I try not to miss during the holiday season is "Tomáseen Foley's A Celtic Christmas." The evening of music, song, dance and story has been performed every year for the past 12 years. While that's not as old as "The Nutcracker" or "It's a Wonderful Life," the show has become a tradition for the audiences that pack theaters across the United States every winter to see it. And this year, as in every year, there are those seeing the show for the first time. And you can be sure they'll come back.

"A Celtic Christmas" changes very little from year to year. Foley describes the differences as only slight. There may be a new dancer, singer or musician performing alongside the guitarist William Coulter, who has been in every show.

But when audiences arrive, they see the same window frame hanging down from the ceiling against the back curtain of the stage with a lit candle perched on the ledge. Similar candles sit on the apron of the stage where limelights of old used to be. There are chairs for the performers and clouds of misty fog swirling about. And when the house lights go down, we are lovingly carried back to a time few of us can remember, without cars or televisions, to a remote farmhouse where the neighbors — us — have gathered to enjoy an old tradition: sharing music, song, dance and story.

Every year the show starts in dim lighting with a vocal solo of a traditional Irish Christmas song telling of the darkest midnight of the year and the light that shines through it. There is a dancing duel between two performers who also play the fiddle or the whistle while they dance. There are haunting tunes on the uilleann pipes, fiddle, whistle, guitar and bodhrán. There are more songs and amazing Irish dances that seem to be way too fast and high for human legs. And at the end, the audience joins in singing "Silent Night."

At the center of the show are the stories recounted by Foley. Do the stories change? Sometimes. But they retain the flavor of the old versions and the era that gave birth to them. They come from Foley's memory of growing up with a colorful cast of family and neighbors in rural Ireland.

Foley is now as old as some of the characters is his stories. And he is doing what his ancestors have done for years long before "The Nutcracker" or "It's a Wonderful Life." He is carrying on an ancient tradition. And therein lies a profound relevance that has a special effect all its own.