OLM Christmas CalendarA Celtic Family Christmas with Natalie MacMaster & Donnell Leahy

A Celtic Family Christmas with Natalie MacMaster & Donnell Leahy

A Celtic Family Christmas with Natalie MacMaster & Donnell Leahy

decal19Welcome to Day 19 of our
25 Day Ottawa Life
Christmas Calendar

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Images supplied by the National Arts Centre.

Family and music are always the shining stars on top of Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy's holiday season. When you look back at how they were raised, you really can’t expect Christmas to be anything but a time full of festive melodies floating around jubilant relatives and dancing children.

Cape Breton fiddler MacMaster comes from a linage that includes uncle Buddy MacMaster and is cousin to fiddler Ashley MacIssac. Leahy is of course part of the massive clan from Lakefield, Ontario that have been touring their jigs, reels and Celtic fused folk tunes since the early 80s. Now happily married with kids of their own, the fiddling virtuosos decided to share some of their usual Celtic Christmas cacophony with an audience as the entire family takes to the road for a show that is sure to stay with you long after the final ornament is packed away for next season.

Though things can get chaotic –and we’re not just talking about the famed frantic fiddling– Leahy and MacMaster both manage to maintain order this time of year while instilling into their kids the messages passed on to them by their parents.

“It’s nuts! Lots of visiting, skating on the pond and Santa Claus visits but we keep it in perspective and know that Christmas is about the birth of a child,” says Leahy, a sentiment MacMaster is quick to echo.

“We celebrate advent, we celebrate the birth of Jesus and then we party,” she adds. “We try to prioritize or focus.”

The show will feel almost as though you’ve walked up, rang the doorbell and been welcomed in to a warm, friendly home by the musicians themselves. You almost expect Donnell to be roaming around the audience handing out eggnog!

Though they have both toured with the children before, doing so during the holidays adds something extra special to their usual Christmas festivities. Those who have never experienced a Cape Breton Christmas will have it brought to them minus only the comfortable furniture and roaring hearth as Natalie, Donnell and the kids combine familiar songs, traditional dancing and a few memories from back home into one stocking stuffed performance!

“Christmas is where this whole concept started and we are excited to be travelling as a family,” says Donnell. “It’s a perfect time to travel across Canada and bring light and happiness to families and fans across the country.”

The want to tour during the Christmas season this year sparked a first for MacMaster. Along with Leahy, she would record a Christmas album. It's Donnell's second though he was only 14 when Christmas with the Leahy Family was released. Recording popular holiday songs with their own Celtic tinsel has actually been a hope of MacMaster's for many years.

The all fiddling, all dancing family sweep onto the National Arts Centre stage Wednesday, December 21. Tickets went faster then the bows across the fiddle strings and the performance is now sold out.


Ottawa Life had a chance to talk with Donnell and Natalie about putting the show together and what Christmases both past and present have been like for them.

Ottawa Life: When you think of Christmas what are the images that instantly spring to mind?

Donnell Leahy: Our family home and our childhood home.

Natalie MacMaster: A tree, twinkling lights outside the house, and children decorating.

Being both from such musical families, what are some of your memories of the holidays as it relates to music?

Leahy: There was music all the time. Christmas was a rare time of rest, no school, no farm work, so people were around, visiting back and forth and we had the opportunity to play for others.  We didn’t necessarily play Christmas music, just fiddle tunes.

MacMaster: Since people weren’t working, everyone was around to play music.  That is what made it so special.

What were the holidays like growing up and how have you held onto some of that childhood sense of Christmas wonder?

Leahy: Growing up Christmas was very hectic, lots of fun.  We hold onto that childhood sense of wonder through our own children.  We are traditionalists and we keep special the things that are meaningful to us.

MacMaster: I realize that the reason why I have Christmas wonder is because my parents worked hard preparing that -gifts, food, decorations etc.- so their children feel the magic of Christmas.  Now as in my role as a parent, I try to do that for my children.  Their joy is our reward.

Can you share any particular cherished memories of a Christmas or two with your kids?

Leahy: Our oldest daughter, Mary Frances, who is 11 now, was born in early December. That Christmas we packed up our rig for the short drive to Mom and Dad’s with so much baby gear we almost had to make two trips!  We have a little more practice now.

MacMaster: I remember the excitement leading up to Christmas Day, preparing meals and preparing the house.  Being woken up at 5 am with the sweetness, appreciation and wonderment and purity of the children.


With Christmas music being pumped into malls and over the radio as early as the start of November these days, how did you two approach the old standards for this show and album to make them sound fresh?

Leahy: Because we usually tour at Christmas we miss that crazy mall season.  We were recording in early summer but is always a busy time.  Since we don’t really play “Christmas” music much at Christmas (we just play music and have lots to choose from), these tunes were fresh for us.

MacMaster: We just followed our musical guide, we weren’t trying to go in any particular direction, just create layers of Celtic music, creating an intricate backdrop for these beautiful traditional melodies.

With so many songs to choose from, how did you settle on what eventually made it to the album?

Leahy: We let it evolve, you start with one that we like and it takes on a life of its own from there.

MacMaster: We had some help from Bob Ezrin who produced our  last album “One”.


Though both steeped in Celtic traditional music, both of you come from separate backgrounds in a sense: Leahy the huge family from Ontario and Natalie from out in Cape Breton). In what ways have you found to merge your styles or was it just a natural progression?

Leahy: We realized early on that if played a tune together that we had learned separately, the playing clashed and it didn’t really work.  But we discovered that if we learned a tune together, or wrote a tune together, that worked well for us.  We both had melodies in our heads for Christmas tunes, but since we didn’t practice or play them a lot before we started this project, we were able to make it work.

MacMaster: We haven’t really tried to meld our styles, it is just an awareness of the fact that our styles are very different so everything together wouldn’t work, we need to highlight our differences.

Having seen you perform many times, it’s always a thrill when the kids come out to join in. The audience loves it too! What is life like on the road for the family and why did you choose to make the kids part of the shows?

Leahy: Christmas is all about children and about the birth of a child, it’s who we are as a family, this is our life, so it was just the natural thing to do.

I imagine it’s got to be extra special touring with them for the holidays?

MacMaster: Absolutely, it is a privilege and a gift to us to have played music alone all over lives, then to have played music together and now to play with our children. It is such a natural evolution for us and being on the road is a building of family life, its an education and it is an opportunity. I am very grateful and having a great time!

For you two, what it is like balancing the marriage the musicianship?

MacMaster: Donnell and I work really well together because we have almost the same opinion on everything, same tastes. It was easy when we built our home, it was easy to make music together and we are also very respectful of the others role and quite willing to yield the decision making when required. Donnell is a gentleman and I am old- fashioned girl at heart.

a-celtic-family-christmas-600-300x300Natalie hasn’t recorded a holiday album before and Donnell was quite young when Leahy released their Christmas album. What went into the choice to record this album now?

Leahy: We have wanted to record together since we married but there was always other commitments that got in the way, professional commitments but also family commitments, having and raising our children.  It was never pressing until one day it was.  We recorded “One”, our first record together which we released in 2015.  We knew we were planning a Christmas tour for this year so the idea of the Christmas record became the most important thing and that allowed us to focus on it and get it done.

This tour is selling out all over. Personally, I can’t think of a better way I’d like to kick off my holiday season. What are some of the things you have in store for these shows?

Leahy: We play with world-class musicians for whom we have tremendous respect, there is a lot of talent on that stage. And of course the children.  For us the show is not a performance,, it is an invitation to the audience into our home to share our Christmas celebration.


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