Christmas Fest has been a significant part of St. Olaf’s musical tradition for over a hundred years, but as many students know, it has a reputation for being both an incredible and painful experience. Strangely, Christmas Fest is somewhat of an enigma as it goes against a lot of what the Reformation set out to change, despite coming from a Lutheran tradition. Fest is, of course, meant to be showy, but is also meant to hold religious depth, sort of like a less cute adult version of a Christmas pageant. So, what is Christmas Fest and is it something Martin Luther would’ve wanted?
In rehearsals leading up to the performance, it is clear Christmas Fest’s music is intended to be perfected, which sounds a lot like the ars perfecta tradition. Through my research, I’ve learned that Luther loved the ars perfecta tradition but knew it wasn’t suited for the common person. Frankly, the average Fest attendee would likely not be able to sound like the choirs. Attendees do get a chance to sing hymns as a large group, but a majority of the music is sung by the choirs only, mimicking pre-Reformation ideals that only church officials get to perform. Aside from that, you run into many problems if you view Christmas Fest as a worship service, especially since you have to pay to attend. Things become less problematic when you view the event as just a performance, but it is difficult to remove the religious element when pastors come in to recite verses from the Bible.
I think it’s beneficial for us to discuss Christmas Fest in terms of what we know from the Reformation, but we should also keep in mind that Fest is its own entity that doesn’t necessarily have to connect back to Reformation ideals. Having been both a performer and a Fest attendee, I’ve been able to see both sides of the experience. As a listener, you buy a ticket with the expectation that you will hear great choirs sing great music, and you’re less concerned about making the event into a church service. From my personal experience, it’s been hard to find audience members that have had a problem with the festival in this way. As a performer, I think your experience depends on what you put into it. I worked hard and was exhausted by the end, but I still enjoyed it and got a small amount of religious satisfaction from it. On the other hand, I absolutely see why Fest can be controversial as it often feels like Christianity is being shoved down the performer’s throat as they’re forced to preach about it whether or not they agree with it themselves. I wonder, though, exactly how much damage would be done by taking the religious element out of Fest; perhaps it would go over well, they’d just need a new name.
Everyone involved in Christmas Fest should be reflecting on what the event means to them and what it might mean to others, but it is especially important for the planning committee to analyze how Fest affects the St. Olaf community. In the end, Christmas Fest is a much bigger deal than just a performance, it’s also something the community cares a whole lot about. Therefore, it’s just as important to keep the big picture in mind as it is to analyze details that will help us better the experience in years to come.