In a year where family gatherings and live music have gone out the window, at least one comforting New England holiday tradition remains: GBH’s “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn” with Brian O’Donovan returns virtually Dec. 15-20.
Now in its 18th year, the show has become holiday ritual for many New Englanders. “We’ve passed into that level of: We-always-do-this. Like how people say, ‘We always go to the Pops,’ or ‘We always go to see the lights in downtown Boston and then go to Brigham’s for ice cream,’ ” O’Donovan says.
“The rituals of this time of year become important to people. We felt we had an obligation. We just can’t take away one of those rituals, if [it could come together] by working a little harder, a little more creatively,” says the native of West Cork, Ireland, and longtime GBH host.
If you’ve seen “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn,” you know it’s a full-on experience. From the avuncular O’Donovan’s poems and stories, to the dancing, singing along, fiddling, drumming, and overall Old World merriment, from a cast of performers hailing from around the globe.
To create a stream-able show, O’Donovan and nine others quarantined together in Rockport, where they lived in two houses, and rehearsed at the Shalin Liu Performance Center. They also worked back and forth, editing and dubbing, with performers who weren’t able to travel. “It’s special. And the mark of determination of humanity up against our malaise,” O’Donovan says.
“A Virtual Christmas Celtic Sojourn” has partnered with the New England venues that would normally present the holiday staple: The Vets in Providence, Zeiterion Performing Arts Center in New Bedford, Hanover Theatre in Worcester, Cutler Majestic Theatre in Boston, and Shalin Liu. Portions of each show will be tailored to that specific theater’s audience, O’Donovan says, and each will receive a portion of ticket sales.
Shows start in real time. If you purchase tickets for the Cutler Majestic show on Dec. 19 at 7:30 p.m., say, you will receive a code for that specific showtime. Each show will also be available on-demand to ticket-holders from Dec. 21 to Jan. 2. Tickets, from $52.50, are available at www.christmasceltic.com.
You can get your #CelticChristmas on other ways: Tune into GBH 2 on Dec.18 at 9 p.m. to watch a program recorded in 2019 at the Cutler Majestic. Or check out past highlights at www.christmasceltic.com/library.
We caught up with O’Donovan in Rockport.
Q. When did you have the idea to do the Christmas shows virtually?
A. Sometime during the summer. Our first instinct was to say, “No, it’s not going to happen.” But then in talking with our staff and musicians, there was a desire of: How can we bring some comfort and joy? I called up our musicians and said, “This is what we’re thinking; I have no idea what or even if you’ll get paid.” They said, “We’re in. What do we do and where?”
Q. And a portion of the shows are going to the theaters?
A. We can’t just ignore the fact that these theaters have been involved in this. So we’re going to cut these theaters in to help keep the lights on.
Q. The arts have been one of the areas most affected by the pandemic.
A. Devastated. When you think about the arts industry, you think about people gathering. That’s the very thing that’s been stabbed through the heart. What was expected to be a short shutdown became a long shutdown, and now it’s extended into a year, for chrissakes. It’s hard.
Q. So how did you put this together?
A. We have COVID policies in place here that required us all to quarantine, get tested, and then when we got together we were masked and socially distanced for days. Nobody could go in or out of our bubble. We ate outside by ourselves. I couldn’t even see my wife.
We started rehearsing with masks, then gradually without masks. The confidence came back. We realized it’s normal for people to sit around the table and eat together, to play board games at night. I say this because one of the biggest fears I had with COVID was that once it was gone, people’s fear of each other would be the threat. And I believe, based on this experience, it will come back. Once the confidence is established, that desire to be close to each other is a necessary part of human life. So I’m confident we’ll go back to what we know as being normal, sometime.
Q. And you did this in Rockport?
A. At the Shalin Liu Performance Center. It’s gorgeous. We called them up and said we’re doing this [virtual show], and they said why don’t you come and do all the recordings here? We’ll give you the building, lock, stock and barrel, so your quarantine and isolation can be kept intact, and you can stay there two weeks — rehearse there, record there, videotape there.
We [contacted some] artists overseas who have worked with us in the past, and said, “Are you guys interested? We don’t know what you’ll get paid.” They said, “We don’t care; we’ll do it.” So we’ve got musicians from Edinburgh joining us, County Kerry, from Sligo, Vermont, Michigan. [He describes the complicated editing process.]
Q. Wow. And your daughter, Aoife, [Grammy-winning artist and part of the trio I’m With Her] is in it this year.
A. She’ll record “I Wonder as I Wander” in the Berkshires where she is right now, with her husband who’s a cellist.
Q. Will your wife [Lindsay] take part again?
A. My wife, if you can believe it, was the supplier. She did not come into the bubble with us, but if anyone needed anything, she would get it. So she’s very much a part of it.