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Celebrate an Irish yuletide

Long ago in the tiny parish of Tempall an Ghleanntain in southwest Ireland, a traveling circus came to town right around Christmas time. The people of the parish didn't often see circuses, minstrels or theater troupes because their little village was so remote. Singing, music and dancing was performed indoors or at the church.

It was an exciting event for the parish. This circus had a live jazz band ... and an elephant that got loose and drank too much Guiness.

Just how the elephant found enough stout ale to get drunk is where storyteller Tomaseen Foley begins one of his tales as part of "A Celtic Christmas," to be presented at 3 and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 23, at the Craterian Theater, 23 S. Central Ave., Medford. 

Foley and his company of Irish musicians, singers and dancers return each year to the Craterian Theater to present this Irish yuletide celebration. The ensemble brings to life earlier times in Ireland, where the spirit of Christmas drew families, friends and neighbors together under the rafters of thatched farmhouses — or rambling houses — for Christmas nights of cheerful songs, traditional instrumentals, dancing and stories.

New to the company this year is violin player Edwin Huizinga, who Foley met while working with baroque quartet Apollo's Fire in Cleveland in 2012 and 2013 as part of its Countryside Concerts. Foley, guitarist William Coulter and uilleann piper Brian Bigley mixed Celtic storytelling, dancing and music with classical music played by Huizinga on violin, Kathie Stewart on flute, Tina Bergman on hammer dulcimer and tenor Ross Hauck.

"I'm excited to be working with Edwin," Foley says. "He's doing amazing work. He's a rising star in the world of baroque as a violin player, but he's so diversified that he can play Celtic fiddle as well."

Foley and his company also worked with a symphony at the University of California at Santa Cruz in 2003, and they're collaborating with the Omaha Symphony to put together a mix of Irish storytelling, music and dance with a large orchestra to be performed in March of 2016.

Along with Foley, Huizinga, Coulter and Bigley, Marcus Donnelly from Galway and Marianne Knight from County Mayo in western Ireland will join this year's production of "A Celtic Christmas." Knight is a vocalist, plays flute, whistle and accordion and is a champion Irish dancer, along with Donnelly and Bigley. 

"Everyone starts dancing when they're fairly young in Ireland," Knight says. "It's such a part of the culture. My style of dance is similar to Riverdance, a competitive style of dancing. It's all about correct posture and crossing feet. Though I'm always aware of the style, I find it more enjoyable and natural to perform sean-nos. It' a looser, freer style of dancing that doesn't use strict body movement and allows the arms to move."

Donnelly is a standout, one of the few who are pushing the boundaries in the realm of Irish dance. Usually stiff, with movement from the hips down only, Donnelly works out his own wayward interpretations of freestyle, Irish dance, Foley says.

"A Celtic Christmas " is full of traditional carols that are rarely heard in America, with this year's exception of "Beautiful Star of Bethlehem." Also look for the traditional Irish "The Wexford Carol," also known as "The Enniscorthy Carol," that dates back to the 12th century, and "Kerry Christmas Carol," a song telling of the custom of leaving the door unlock, a fire in the grate and food and drink on table so that the holy family could enter if it was seeking shelter.

Tickets cost $29, $32 or $35, $20, $23 or $26 for ages 18 and younger, and can be purchased at the Craterian box office, 16. S. Bartlett St., online at craterian.org or by calling 541-779-3000.

Singer, accordian player and champion Irish dancer Marianne Knight performs in Tomaseen Foley's 'A Celtic Christmas.'