An East Coast Christmas with The Barra MacNeils

An East Coast Christmas with The Barra MacNeils

By David DeRocco 

The six members of the MacNeil family who form Eastern Canada’s Christmas ambassadors – a.k.a. THE BARRA MacNEILS – all started making music together at a young age, first with Sheumas, Kyle, Stewart and Lucy, and now along with brothers Ryan and Boyd. Despite two decades together, the MacNeils have managed to stay united and true to their roots, mixing accordion, fiddle, guitar, piano, bodhran, mandolin, banjo, Celtic harp, tin whistles and bouzouki into their own distinct brand of traditional East Coast music. Given the musical confines of their sound, however, has any member of the MacNeil family expressed a desire to branch out – say, for example, to start a Guns N Roses cover band?

“I’m sure daily one of the band members wishes they could do that,” laughed Stewart MacNeil, one of the founding members of the popular family collective from Sydney Mines, Nova Scotia. “This year is our 20th anniversary of the Barra MacNeils’ Christmas tour. We see kids who used to be dragged to the shows by their parents now dragging their parents. It has certainly been a great road for us.”

With their annual EAST COAST CHRISTMAS tour, The Barra MacNeils have become as much a part of Canadian Christmas tradition as rum and eggnog, Boxing Day madness and disdain for the phrase, happy holidays. However, given the musical environment in which they grew up, it was inevitable the siblings would wind up a touring act with a passion for Christmas.

“Really, there was always a lot of music in the house,” remembered Stewart. “Our mother, she was our first teacher. Our father was our first sound man, he worked for the phone company in an electronics trade. They were always big music fans and it was a great culture growing up, with lots of opportunities to play, parish concerts, local dances and things. We always played lots during the holidays, whether it was December 23rd at Monty’s in Sydney Mines or Daniel’s on Boxing Day or at a lot of local homes. It’s was always a time for celebration.”

The tour does promise an East Coast Christmas, which conjures up immediate images of holiday traditions that seem easily identifiable – much more than if the tour was called a West Coast Christmas. Why do Canadians identify so easily with East Coast traditions? Stewart offered this explanation.

“Well, you know, there are certainly elements of what we do that are very much Canadiana, a good portion. There are Stan Rogers songs with his connection to Hamilton and beyond. I think as Canadian we all experience the cold dark winter. We do all share that. We’ve found out over the years that a lot of our traditions are shared not just by East Coasters.”

Much like the airing of a Charlie Brown Christmas or Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeeer, the East Coast Christmas with The Barra MacNeils has become an annual favourite with fans across the country. It makes for a hectic season for the MacNeil family, who between November 25th and Christmas Day will be performing 27 times on this tour. As for the ongoing appeal, Stewart says it’s all about the songs.

“I think the music speaks for itself,” he said. “So many of the carols have been around for hundreds of years. People like the familiar carols. I do like singing some of the Gaelic numbers as well. There’s one piece that’s very trance lie, a very special hallelujah. It’s very moving, and it really resonates with the audience. That’s something the show does have, very warm tones that come from the stage. We’re fortunate that a lot of people make it an annual tradition.”

As for what one instrument he would like to see Santa leave under his tree this Christmas, Stewart said that precedent was already set a long time ago.

“Well, that’s a tough one. I will say Santa left a harmonica under my tree when I was five years old and I could play a song on it by dinner time. That was my start! It lead to a lot of life after that.”

The Barra MacNeils play First Ontario Performing Arts Centre Partridge Hall November 29th. Showtime is 7:30pm. For more info, pics & music clips, visit or Office: 905 688-0722


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