When sisters Maureen, Karen, and Teresa Ennis started recording music, one of their first projects was a Christmas album, Christmas on Ennis Road. That was 15 years ago. Since that time the gals have experimented with new sounds, side projects, and lineup changes, but It’s Christmas marks a full circle return to the Ennis Sisters’ original mandate, with a subtle reflection of contemporary Newfoundland attitudes towards the holiday season.
As I listened to the new album, I thought (not for the fist time) about what makes a Christmas album a Newfoundland Christmas album. The themes you’d expect – family, friends, love, reflection, and a smidge of commercialism – are all there, but there’s something more. Melodies and instrumentation aside, It’s Christmas belongs to a definite sub-genre of Christmas music.
Of course it’s romanticized – everything about Christmas in popular culture is, almost out of necessity at this point – but it’s romanticized in a different way. It’s Christmas isn’t a flashy tinsel-wrapped package of coloured lights, sleigh bells, shopping, and Santa Claus (the penultimate track, “Coming Down the Chimney,” is the only one that transgresses this rule, and it’s a fun addition). Instead, these are 12 songs that belong in a candle-lit church where, when you step out into the night, you can smell the salt in the air. Nativity imagery abounds, but the album isn’t staunchly religious – it’s more interested in capturing a traditional, congregational feel.
For that reason, not everyone will get this album. At no other time during the year am I as acutely aware that I’m not from St. John’s as Christmas, and the music is what makes that clear. It’s Christmas opens with “Harbour Lights,” an up-tempo song that reiterates the slower Ron Hynes number “I’ll Be There Christmas Eve” that the ladies covered in 1998. The idea of coming home for Christmas break is universal, but the details are regional: the characters in this song are returning to dying outport communities from western Canada, and that’s a homecoming worth celebrating.
Throughout the album, interwoven harmonies override the need for complicated production. Wince Coles may have written “Mary’s Lullaby,” but it meshes well with songs like the traditional English carol “The Holly and the Ivy” because of the simple, authentic arrangements and lyrics that hearken to a near mythologized time in history. The eponymous “It’s Christmas” has a more contemporary, pop-oriented sound and flourishes (cue the bells), and even though it doesn’t say anything particularly new, it’s a tune that will be fun to see live.
It’s a cover of Dermot O’Reilley’s “A Children’s Winter,” however, that captures the soul of the album. A Celtic-tinged tribute to the simple pleasures associated with being young in a field of freshly fallen snow, the song glamorizes the past while looking with trepidation at the uncertainties of the future. Even when you grow up, though, the snow still comes back next year, and new children will find a friend in a snowman. When it all comes down to it, can’t the same be said for Christmas in Newfoundland? As listeners, we’re treated to a near seamless segue to the closing track, “Go Safely Into the Night,” an appropriate, piano-based send-off: “May the good outweigh the bad / Be grateful for the things you have / May answered prayers be at your door / To lift your spirits evermore.”
A lot can happen in a year, but Christmas will come again and, God willing, you’ll find your way back to those you care about, to believe in magic once again. Even now, miles from home, the Ennis Sisters are able to remind me of that.
The Ennis Sisters will be doing a provincial tour of community churches in the month of December. Visit their web site for more information.