Organizers for the Tabernacle Choir’s Christmas concert learned something they didn’t know when they invited Megan Hilty and Neal McDonough to perform.
Both artists have Irish roots.
“We decided to capitalize on that,” said Mack Wilberg, the choir’s music director.
The result was a Celtic Christmas in the Conference Center, complete with castle walls, a small forest of lighted trees and a massive holiday wreath hanging above the choir loft. Against this backdrop, music and story blended to present fun Christmas traditions and a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.
“Christmas With The Tabernacle Choir,” performed for an audience of about 4,000 and recorded for PBS and BYUtv to air in 2022, featured a variety of English, Welsh and French carols, along with an Irish jig, with Hilty singing, McDonough narrating, and music by the Tabernacle Choir, Orchestra and Bells at Temple Square.
Also in the audience was Sister Susan H. Porter, who serves as first counselor in the Primary general presidency, and the Rev. Amos Brown, as well as other community, civic and government leaders. President Russell M. Nelson attended the concert Thursday evening.
Here are four highlights from “Christmas With the Tabernacle Choir.”
1. Hilty’s two special songs
Hilty, an American singer and actress, showcased her musical talents by singing several songs during the program. Two had special significance for her, she said prior to the concert.
The first song, “A Place Called Home,” from “A Christmas Carol,” was one she had performed many times. She asked if she could perform it in the concert as part of a family Christmas medley.
“Luckily, they thought it fit perfectly within the context of the show,” she said.
Hilty was also thrilled to sing “Angels From the Realms of Glory” at the end of the concert.
“It’s so powerful and it’s so iconic, and I never get to sing classically,” she told the Deseret News. “I grew up training classically, so anytime I get to sing in that particular style, I’m always really grateful for, but for this, and it highlights the best of every single musician and vocalist. It’s really quite powerful when it all comes together.”
2. Family stories and ties to Ireland
Woven in between musical numbers, Hilty and McDonough shared anecdotes of their family ties to Ireland.
Hilty and her husband both have strong Irish ties. After decorating their home for Christmas, Hilty’s family likes to make her mother’s classic cheesy potato casserole.
“When the holidays come around, we naturally inherit a bit of the Irish whimsy and fun,” she said.
McDonough, an award-winning actor who has been in more than 100 films, danced an impromptu Irish jig before talking about growing up as a devout Irish Catholic in Boston. While his family lives far from the Emerald Isle today, they still honor many Irish Christmas traditions.
“My parents emigrated from Ireland in the late 1940s, early 1950s, and raised us six kids with such a love for our homeland,” he said. “Even though my wife is from South Africa and our five children were born in Los Angeles, we’re never far from my Irish heritage, for which I’m grateful. In fact, my wife and I met on St. Patrick’s Day.”
3. Irish jig on the organ
One highlight of the concert featured Tabernacle organist Richard Elliott, Daron Bradford on the penny whistle, Micah Fleming on the fiddle, and Danny Soulier on the bodhran drum as they performed “Irish Jig on ‘In dulci jubilo.’”
Fittingly clad in a green vest and bow tie, Elliott’s total mastery and command of the organ were on full display during the piece. It was a jovial, toe-tapping number that was an obvious crowd favorite and easily one of the most entertaining songs of the entire night.
4. Christmas traditions that reflect Christ
During his narration, McDonough highlighted a few Irish Christmas traditions that have ties to the birth of Jesus Christ.
“One Irish Christmas tradition that has spread across the world is placing a candle in the window,” he said. “It reflects the holy family seeking shelter and finding no room at the inn. For my ancestors, a candle shining in the darkness was an assurance that Mary and Joseph would have been welcomed into their homes, but it was also a sign that the poor, the weary, the downtrodden could find refuge within.”
A light in the darkness is also a symbol of the Christ child himself, McDonough added.
“Whether it’s a candle in the window, or a light in our eyes, Christmas is a time to signal that we’re willing to love and serve those in need. Sometimes in our homes, always in our hearts.”