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Stewart MacNeil says the idea to record holiday music and go out on tour with it originated with an appearance on a televised Christmas special hosted by Rita MacNeil back in the mid-1990s.
“People enjoyed our arrangements on some of the traditional songs, and they were looking for recordings,” MacNeil told SooToday. “In 1999 we made our first Christmas album, and it got rave reviews and a lot of great attention.”
Fast forward to 2018, and the Barra MacNeils are now in their 19th year of bringing Christmas favourites to Canadians and have recorded three Christmas albums within that time.
MacNeil half-jokingly describes the current tour – which makes its way to Sault Community Theatre Centre Dec. 6 – as “Cape Breton kitchen party meets midnight mass.”
“It’s based on a lot of good memories growing up, and stories of us being a family growing up, and being exposed to a lot of music growing up,” said MacNeil. “The food and the stories and the road hockey tournaments and whatever else that goes along with, I suppose, growing up in Canada and celebrating the Christmas season in our own little way.”
MacNeil has a multitude of fond memories when it comes to the holiday season, conjuring up recollections of playing Christmas Eve matinees at Daniel’s in Sydney, Nova Scotia, where people from all walks of life – even Cape Breton’s legal community – would come to the pub and watch the MacNeil siblings perform Christmas favourites.
“They would send their kids down to try and reserve a table,” said MacNeil. “So you would have the Supreme Court and whoever else would be in the corner just enjoying the holiday.”
“Those are fond memories, and what we do today grew out of that whole side of things.”
There’s even earlier memories of Christmas for MacNeil – visions of fiddling, step dancing and kitchen parties back home on Cape Breton when he was a child.
“My mother, she grew up in a rural area where they had the first piano in the community, so that became a real gathering spot,” MacNeil said. “Cape Breton at that time, it wasn’t so much a pub culture, it was more of a house party, do-drop-in kind of thing, especially in the smaller areas.”
“Everybody knew everybody, and it was very common for people to, you know, just actually drop in – especially during the holiday times,” he continued. “Music was always encouraged in the home and it became a very positive thing.”
One of his earliest Christmas memories, MacNeil says, was up at his grandmother’s house, singing Dean Martin’s Little Old Wine Drinker Me in front of a crowd.
“Everybody had their little party favourite, and it didn’t matter if it was good, bad or otherwise – you were going to be called on to do something, and it was all in good fun,” he said. “That’s certainly something that stays with me.”
Tickets for this Thursday’s An East Coast Christmas with the Barra MacNeils performance can be purchased at the Sault Community Theatre Centre box office in the Station Mall.