On the St. Olaf College website, the St. Olaf Christmas Festival is described as “one of the oldest musical celebrations of Christmas in the United States.” It’s important to remember this self-definition when questioning this event’s identity: is it a concert, or is it a service?
It’s kind of both. It has elements of theology that align quite well with Luther’s ideas in the reformation. Christmas Fest presents a theme every year that is reflected through most of (if not all) the repertoire selected. This year’s is “Light Dawns, Hope Blooms”. In my own research regarding my first paper, I discovered that Luther believed musicians’ job in worship is to present musical sermons with a compelling theological message that’s accessible to the congregation. I’ve never been an audience member of Christmas Fest, but I believe it would be difficult to not catch a glimpse of each yearly message since the theme is clearly pasted above the roughly 500 choir members in a catchy font.
Christmas Festival has another important factor pointing itself towards being more of a service: congregational hymns. There is a processional hymn for all to sing when the choirs enter, two hymns in the middle of event, and a recessional hymn when the choirs exit into the round. Luther was an avid advocate for accessible chorale tunes so all present at a service could sing together.
Unfortunately, Christmas Festival loses its validity as a service in politics. Entry to the event costs $30 per person, plus a $7 “transaction fee” when purchasing. This makes the festival an exclusive event rather than inclusive. If St. Olaf wanted it to be closely aligned with service practices without overbooking each night, tickets could be reserved for free with a free-will donation optional. Along with the clapping that follows the final notes of Beautiful Savior at the end, it’s really not possible to argue that it is a service any longer. Because the actual contents of the concert mainly have the intentions of a service, I don’t think it’s entirely fair to call it simply a concert either. It’s a celebration of Christmas; the website is not wrong.