There are very, very few Christmas albums I like. But Loreena McKennit‘s A Midwinter Night’s Dream (2008) is one to which I keep returning. Born and raised in Morden, Manitoba, McKennitt is a fitting pick for the last Sunday before Christmas.
Tinged with Celtic and Middle Eastern flavour, the instrumentation on this album is diverse, yet wonderfully blended and always tasteful. Her vocals are as powerful and refreshing as a long walk on a cold, clear winter day. The layered percussion sets the stage for each song. Even the album art is beautiful.
But though its performances glow, its greatest strength is, perhaps, its track list. The songs chosen by McKennitt demonstrate not only originality (she contributes music, arrangements, and lyrics, depending on the song), but also a deep familiarity with the history and folklore of Christmas over the past few centuries. (One song, “Noël Nouvelet,” dates back to 16th century France.) And all this without ever veering near that most prevalent of pitfalls for contemporary Christmas albums: schmaltz. Mystical, reflective, and enchanting, A Midwinter Night’s Dream is Christmas music — and Christmas — at its best.
McKennitt has said of the album, “I really wanted to recapture some of the frankincense and myrrh in this music, and the process was a fresh reminder of the diversity of so many traditions when it comes to music of the winter season. The songs are rich with abundant references to the natural world and connections to our spiritual and religious bearings; it’s clear that people have always used winter as a time of reflection.”
Here are two of my favourite selections from the album. I wanted to include her rendition of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” but couldn’t find the full album version anywhere online. But these two tracks are still a treat. Enjoy! — and Merry Christmas!