My family’s Christmas tree was always home to an eclectic mix of homemade ornaments accumulated over time—none two alike, each with a story. Each year, we decorate the tree, sip warm drinks and share memories associated with each ornament. My favorite is a snowflake I made as a Girl Scout, using corks, sewing pins and shiny beads. I remember the first time I hung the snowflake alongside the other sparkly—and some not-so-sparkly—bobbles. I felt great pride; my creation had become a permanent part of the Miller family tradition.
More than two decades later, my snowflake has endured the wear and tear of any holiday decoration stored in a musty garage or attic for all but a few weeks of the year. And the memories associated with that little snowflake continue to emit an effervescence as poignant as that first Christmas it was on display. Now crooked and missing a few beads, my snowflake is the ornament equivalent of Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree: It’s not much to look at, but it bursts with holiday spirit.
Like my family and me—and our perpetually growing collection of ornaments—Santa Cruz has had its own holiday tradition: Tomáseen Foley’s “A Celtic Christmas.” The show is a collaboration between Tomáseen Foley, director and main storyteller, and longtime music director William Coulter, featuring an assortment of additional musicians and dancers. The amalgamation of traditional music, dance and storytelling has toured the U.S. for 27 years, celebrating the holiday season.
Coulter, a Santa Cruz resident, started working with Foley 28 years ago. Foley had approached him and other local performers to join him for a new holiday-themed show, which would include himself telling stories, with singing and dancing.
“At the time, he was a fledgling storyteller,” Coulter says. “We gathered up in Medford, Oregon, and had our first shows in that area. Since then, we’ve toured all over the states every year between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The show has evolved, we’ve had many different performers come and go, but the core of the show has remained the same.”
“A Celtic Christmas” aims to recreate a Christmas Eve night in rural Ireland, similar to those of Foley’s youth in the 1950s. Foley was raised in a home with a thatch roof, stone walls and a flagstone floor—without plumbing or electricity, and the sole heat source was an open turf fire.
Foley reminisces on how neighboring families would gather on wintry nights with traditional carols and dances and tell stories.
“Tomáseen calls himself a storyteller, but it’s a bit different from what one might imagine,” Coulter says. “He does not do characters or funny voices or one-liners. He basically sits down at the front of the stage and tells you about his life as a kid, the people in his community and their adventures and relationships. It’s like sitting down with someone in a pub and hearing interesting stories about their life.”
The other players and dancers in “A Celtic Christmas” are world-class artists in their own right. Coulter, an internationally recognized master of the steel-string guitar, has been performing, recording and teaching traditional Celtic and American folk music for more than 30 years.
Coulter will play the guitar, and an Irish drum called the Bodhran this year.
“We haven’t had that in the show in a while,” he says. “We’re excited to bring that back; it adds a really exciting rhythmic element to some of the tunes.”
The show will also include a brand new song, “The Welcome,” which explains the old Irish tradition of placing a candle in each window to welcome neighbors.
For the past four or five seasons, minus the pandemic years, “A Celtic Christmas” has had the same cast, which Coulter calls “the best cast we’ve ever had.”
“In the past, we’ve changed out people occasionally,” he says. “But when you’re working with the same people for that long, the chemistry increases, and magic happens.”
Coulter says he hopes “A Celtic Christmas” inspires audiences to slow down a touch, unplug and be more attentive to others.
“It’s so common these days to have such short reactions to little things on our phones,” he says. “I think that often bleeds into our reactions to other people. To sit still and hear someone talk for a while is a very human experience that we are lacking right now. I hope people walk away from the concert being reminded that it’s okay just to sit and listen.”
Whether it’s gathering with loved ones, cooking potato latkes, traveling, baking German Pfeffernusse cookies—or hanging an ornament that looks like a snowflake if you squint just right—we all have traditions that remind us: it’s “that time of the year.”