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A cultural feast of Irish tradition

Storyteller Tomáseen Foley and his ensemble of dancers, singers and musicians bring to life earlier times in Western Ireland, where the spirit of Christmas drew families and neighbors together for evenings of lighthearted, jovial fun.

"A Celtic Christmas" recreates such a night before Christmas in a thatched farmhouse in Teampall an Ghleanntáin, where the rafters ring with Irish songs, traditional music and dance and stories of life in the distant parish, also Foley's birthplace.

"I play the man of the house in the show," Foley says. "The singers, musicians, dancers and audience play the neighbors. We engage our audiences, and there's a lot of spontaneous laughter."

"A Celtic Christmas" will be presented at 3 and 7 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 21, at the Craterian Ginger Rogers Theater, 23 S. Central Ave., Medford.

New songs, dances and stories fill this season's production, mixed with material from previous ones.

"There are bits of old and new," Foley says. "And two stories are told, one in each half of the show. There's an inherent longing in all humans to be told stories."

One such story is about the Celtic traditions taught to Foley by his grandmother.

"She introduced me to the customs of the day, especially the twilight around Christmas," Foley says. "Candles would be lit and placed in every window. Each candle was lit by the youngest person in the house because it was believed that person could carry the tradition on longer. The family would gather around as each candle took flame and say 'May we all live till this time next year.' "

The largest candle was placed in the main window of the house. This candle was significant because if it blew out in the middle of the night, it was considered an omen that someone in the family would pass away during the coming year.

"My grandmother took extraordinarily good care with that candle," Foley says. "She was in her 80s at the time."

Celtic guitarist William Coulter, dancer Marcus Donnelly and musicians Marianne Knight and Brian Bigley join Foley this year.

Coulter earned a Grammy in 2005 for his compilation of Henry Mancini tunes, titled "Pink Guitar." He teaches classical guitar at the University of Southern California at Santa Cruz, and he tours with such Celtic music luminaries as Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh and Eilis Kennedy.

Donnelly began dancing when he was 8 or 9. He studied dance at the Celine Hession School of Dancing in Galway, Ireland. His dance company is based in Edmonton, Alberta.

"Marcus has taken Irish dance beyond the stiff-armed style of step-dancing," Foley says. "He's gone back to an old style of Irish dance, called sean-nós, and developed it into a more modern style. Sean-nós is looser and allows the use of arms. It doesn't have such strict patterns."

Knight sings, dances and plays button accor-dion, flute, whistle and bodhran. She was the first Irish-born dancer to win the North Amer-ican Dance Cham-pion-ship, Foley says. Bigley dances and plays uilleann pipes, whistle and flute.

"Uilleann is the Irish word for elbow," Foley says. "The bellows are under the player's right elbow and pump air into a bag under the other elbow. The air is pushed into the chanter, which is held across the knee and played with all 10 fingers.

"Some say that the Irish invented uilleann pipes so that they could drink and play at the same time."

Tickets for "A Celtic Christmas" cost $22, $26 and $30 or $12, $16 and $20 for ages 18 and younger. The show is not suitable for ages 7 and younger. Call 541-779-3000 or see www.craterian.org.

Dancer Marcus Donnelly draws from an old style of Celtic dancing called sean-nós for his innovative steps in 'A Celtic Christmas.' - Photo by Jamie Lusch