Music & the Spoken Word: 3 symbols of Christmas

Editor’s note: “The Spoken Word” is shared each Sunday during the weekly Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square broadcast. This week’s will be given by actor Neal McDonough. This will be given Dec. 19, 2021.

In Ireland, the land of my ancestors, Christmas traditions have given the holidays a profound sense of meaning and purpose. They help families welcome the Christ child into their lives — both on Christmas Day and throughout the year. For the generations before me, that meant cleaning the barn, whitewashing the cottage, scrubbing floors, ironing linens and cooking a special meal for family coming home. As the Irish love to say, “Nil Aon Tinteán Mar Do Thinteán Féin.” “There is no hearth like your own hearth,” or, in other words, there’s no place like home. And that’s especially true at Christmas. 

Today, while our family lives far from the Emerald Isle, we still get ready for Christmas in some of the traditional ways. But our most important preparation has to do with our hearts — with remembering others, reconciling differences and returning kindnesses. Even the old Irish custom of a Christmas morning dip in the icy sea was an invitation to wash away the old and begin anew — to welcome the Christ child into hearts made clean and pure for Him.

Neal McDonough serves as emcee during a taping for the “Christmas With the Tabernacle Choir” television special at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 17, 2021.
Neal McDonough serves as emcee during a taping for the “Christmas With the Tabernacle Choir” television special at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 17, 2021. Credit: Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

A Christmas tradition that has spread across the world is placing a candle in the window. It recalls the holy family seeking shelter but finding no room in the inn. For my ancestors, a candle shining in the darkness was an assurance that Mary and Joseph would have been welcome in their homes. It was also a sign that the poor, the weary and the downtrodden could find refuge within.

Of course, light in the darkness is also a symbol of the Christ child himself, the Light of the world. In our time, whether it’s a candle in the window or a light in our eyes, Christmas is a time to signal that we are willing to love and serve those in need — sometimes in our homes and always in our hearts.


In towns and villages across the island, the Irish live simply. But that doesn’t keep them from decorating their homes for Christmas. And the most universal decoration is available to rich and poor alike. It’s the humble holly bush, with its thorned leaves and bright red berries. In the days of my grandparents, children would be sent out to scour the hills for holly branches, which would then be fashioned into a traditional wreath and hung on the wooden cottage door.

It made perfect sense back then, for holly is a symbol of the Holy Child — the Child who would one day wear a crown of thorns, and whose drops of blood would symbolize His sacrifice for all humankind. That sharp crown and those crimson droplets are a reminder that none of us suffer alone. And for believers in Christ, it is an assurance that He was born to heal, comfort, and redeem us from the sorrows of life. This is perhaps the most comforting symbol of all — that the Spirit of Christmas is the spirit of healing and hope, making the holidays truly holy days —now and all year through.

Read more: Tabernacle Choir’s Celtic-themed Christmas performance celebrates family, Irish traditions


Answering a tax decree from Caesar Augustus, Mary and Joseph returned to Bethlehem, the homeland of their ancestors. As prophesied, while they were there, “the days were accomplished that [Mary] should be delivered. And she brought forth her first born son, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” It was an incomparable event. But, if their experience was even remotely like the experience my wife and I had when our five children were born, joy is not a strong enough word to convey the feelings in their hearts. Which is why at Christmas we sing joy to the world.

For the symbol of a newborn baby is a reminder that Christmas is an opportunity for all of us to begin again — to walk in a newness of life ourselves. For which we say, “Buíochas le Dia” — thanks be to God for all of His blessings, especially the blessings of Christmas.

Tuning in …

The “Music & the Spoken Word” broadcast is available on KSL-TV, KSL Radio 1160AM/102.7FM, KSL.com, BYUtv, BYUradio, Dish and DirecTV, SiriusXM Radio (Ch. 143), thetabernaclechoir.org, YouTube and Amazon Alexa (must enable skill). The program is aired live on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. MST on many of these outlets. Look up broadcast information by state and city at musicandthespokenword.com/viewers-listeners/airing-schedules.

See the Church News’ archive of ’Spoken Word’ messages