As Lutherans assert that humans are simul justus et peccator (simultaneously sinner and saint), so I will assert that Fest is too. To put it in the vernacular, Fest is… complicated. It is quite consistent with Lutheran theology that things like Fest happen at schools like St. Olaf. Most fundamentally, Fest could be understood as a service of the Word, in the sense that the songs are meant to entice the listeners and singers to reflect on the gospel (when I say gospel I mean “Good News”) message of the birth of Jesus. In this sense, Fest is a perfect example of evangelism. It also makes sense from a Lutheran point of view of vocation that we spend so much time and energy on it. Having been justified by Christ’s death and resurrection, we can spend time working for the good of our neighbor by learning lots of songs that elucidate the gospels, and singing at them.
The thought that music has the ability to bring greater understanding of the Good News is consistent with Lutheranism too. We’ve been using music as an instrument of edification since the Reformation. My personal research has also shown that proto-reformers whose ideas greatly influenced Luther, namely Hus and Wycliffe, held similar views on music as Luther. Thus, at its best, Christmas Fest is St. Olaf staff, faculty, and students, working together to share the Good News with the community at large.
However, we must also address the sinner side of Fest. To begin with, it seems problematic that people have to pay to see it. From a Lutheran standpoint, money should not influence how much one is able to participate in the church. It is a particular fault of our society to conflate the acquisition of wealth with God’s favor. The belief that one being rich indicates that one is favored by God is a stumbling block over which the Puritans fell, and over which the political right in America often falls today. I grant that Christmas Fest is not cheap to produce. It requires the time of many professionals whose services cost money, and those services should be highly valued and adequately compensated. However, upon considering that Jesus was poor and disadvantaged enough in his society to be born in a barn, it seems awfully ironic that St. Olaf would prohibit the demographic to which Jesus belonged in participating fully in the celebration of his birth. If it is true that one cannot serve both God and mammon (Matt. 6: 24), then it seems like we should be perfectly willing to perform this artistic unpacking of the gospels free of charge, for any who care to listen.
I also worry about the pageantry. The pomp and circumstance around Christmas Fest can seem all consuming. To a degree, we feel like we’ve worked hard, and our hard work should be rewarded by the admiration of middle aged people in Norwegian sweaters who coughed all throughout the performance and clapped for a long time when we finished. To understand this situation through a Lutheran lens, one must consider the two kingdoms doctrine. Basically this doctrine asserts that the worldly kingdom is broken, slightly tragic, and temporary; whereas the heavenly kingdom is right relationship with God, the holy, and eternal. This is really a gross simplification but I’ve probably written too much already. In terms of the heavenly kingdom, Lutherans take the apostle Paul at his word when he says “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Jesus Christ,” (Rom. 3: 23-24). Basically the thought is that by our own power we do only bad things, and that it is by God’s action alone that we aren’t sentenced to eternal awfulness. However, in the worldly kingdom, relative levels of blame or praise may be assigned based on how well one loves one’s neighbor (a thought which of course needs more nuance than may be provided here). The takeaway is that when Lutheran’s are at their best, they’ll do what they believe to be a loving action regardless of whether or not they receive a tangible benefit from their efforts. I understand that in order to maintain its existence, St. Olaf needs money. However, it is necessary to point out that compromising one’s beliefs in order to prolong one’s existence is not, in any way shape or form, a Lutheran value.
I also have qualms with singing in dialect. It seems really pointless to me. In most cases I don’t believe that singing in a particular dialect helps an audience understand the words being sung. This matters a lot when one is trying to convey the gospels. It also strikes me as odd that in general we only sing in dialects when we sing music that we perceive as having an origin foreign to a white, anglo-saxon tradition. We never sing early American tunes in the style of shape note singers. We never sing Luther chorales as they would have been sung by his parishioners. We recognize that these styles of singing are unappealing to the modern listener. Why then do we insist on changing the way we sing in English a song which originated out of a non-white community or tradition? Similar questions may be raised about why we sing in foreign languages in contexts where only the vernacular will be understood by a majority of the listeners.
Christmas Fest is important to me. In some dramatic ways, it can draw St. Olaf musicians into an even closer bond with each other.. All of us recognize that Fest can be (or rather, is) a nightmare, but we get to experience this nightmare together. And for some of us extra silly folks, Fest is an opportunity to express our joy at a particular event, which we assert happened in 1st century Palestine, in a place not designed for childbirth.
Finally I would like to exclaim that it is just fine that Fest happens in Skogatorium. Lutherans should not necessarily be interested in owning the most glamorous, the most expensive, or the most beautiful. During Christmas Fest Lutherans ought to remind themselves that that the person called Jesus of Nazareth was born in a stable; the lowliest of living establishments. We are quite fortunate to have such a place as Skogitorium. It is warm and dry, and as safe as we can reasonably hope. Performing Christmas Fest is taxing on most performers, but I have to think it’s worthwhile.