In Tune With the Traditions of the Season

December 20, 2022

Dear Saint Mary’s Friends,

I’m writing this December missive from our other home in Rhode Island, a long day’s journey from South Bend. My husband and I (and our two kitties) made the 15-hour drive straight through last Saturday, the first half of the trip through steady lake effect snow. Our ultimate goal was to spend Christmas with Boston-based middle daughter Caitríona. Our more immediate goal was to be in Boston for the Sunday afternoon performance of A Christmas Celtic Sojourn, a musical extravaganza hosted by Brian O’Donovan, whose long-running program on National Public Radio highlights traditional music from the Celtic world. The performance took place, as our host put it, inside a Fabergé egg—the stunning and ornate Cutler Majestic Theatre in downtown Boston.

This year’s spectacle featured legendary Irish folk singer Karan Casey, multi-instrumentalist Seamus Egan, Scottish harpist Maeve Gilchrist, uilleann piper Joey Abarta, and high-stepping dancers Joe Harrison and Ashley Smith-Wallace, among others—including astonishing guest artist Lily Henley, who performed music from the American, Celtic, and Sephardic folk traditions. O’Donovan’s wife Lindsay and daughters Nuala and Grammy award-winner Aoife also made appearances. When Karan Casey soared to the high notes in “O Holy Night,” my own heart soared with her.

In full disclosure, I am one of those people who wants Christmas traditions to start squarely AFTER Thanksgiving, and I especially don’t want to wear out the proverbial stereo needle on the music of the season by hearing it overplayed—starting around Halloween. I love the season, and I love the music, and this year—at a number of outstanding concerts and productions, mostly in the tri-campus—I was able to enjoy its variety and depth in abundance during “the most wonderful time of the year.”

Working backwards from our Boston concert, one week earlier, my husband, my mother, and I took in the beautiful “Lessons and Carols” evening service at the Church of Loretto. The Saint Mary's College Collegiate Choir, Belles Voix, the Chapel Choir, and the Loretto Choir all had roles, and the structured interpolation of biblical readings and choral performances created a rhythm that mirrored the movement between darkness and light. The service ended in candlelight with the entire congregation singing “Silent Night.”

Just one day before that, we had joined friends for the Notre Dame Orchestra and Glee Club concert, a plentiful offering of instrumental and vocal pieces from early modern Europe to early 20th century—as well as Caribbean selections, traditional Christmas carols, and popular Christmas music. Dating back to 1932, the Glee Club remains all-male, but a number of Saint Mary’s students play in the very impressive Notre Dame Symphony Orchestra. We enjoyed an inspiring afternoon, which was also a fundraiser for the South Bend Center for the Homeless, the Food Bank of Northern Indiana, and international refugee relief.

But the holiday music season really started for me the first weekend of December, when Saint Mary’s hosted the 50th anniversary of the Madrigal Dinners. A Renaissance-period event, complete with singers, dancers, actors, and jugglers, this lavish affair included a traditional dinner launched with the parading of a real boar’s head through the room as the singers chanted the traditional “Boar’s Head Carol”:

          The boar's head, as I understand
          Is the rarest dish in all this land,
          Which thus bedeck'd with a gay garland
          Let us servire cantico.

And serve with a song they did! It was a merry old dinner in a space transformed to feel like a mead hall in merry old England. What a beautiful and meaningful moment, a mixture of richly seasonal traditions with the rich seasonings of the meal.

As I’m putting the finishing touches on this letter, I realize this is the eve of the winter solstice, that point in the year when we pivot from darkness to light. The many sounds of Christmas—the music that preserves the “holy” in the Holiday season—provide apt accompaniment for the uplift of body and spirit that the solstice brings. I hope each and all of you find yourselves inspired by traditions—perhaps musical ones—in your own families, communities, and places of worship as you move through the remaining days of Advent or through the holy days of other religious traditions.

I wish you a wonderful Christmas and light and happiness in 2023.

Warm regards,

Katie Conboy, Ph.D.


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