St. Olaf College’s Christmas festival has happened for more than 100 years. It’s one of the college’s claims to fame and every Scandinavian in Minnesota has made the pilgrimage to Christmas Fest. But what’s the point? When F. Melius Christiansen started the festival, the goal was probably to create a meaningful Lutheran worship experience. Of course, this is probably still a large part of the reason we do it today. But that’s hard to say when the college’s entire marketing year revolves around the commercialization of a “sacred” festival.
Christmas Festival is a week of profits for the college. Of course, there are expenses–the set, the overtime for ensemble leaders, the huge amounts of Norwegian food in the cafeteria, extra energy and water used on campus. But in return, the college gets recruitment, donors, prestige, profits from ticket sales and meal prices, and a supposed affirmation of the Lutheran tradition at St. Olaf. Isn’t this exactly what Luther tried to end for the church? Of course, indulgences and a profitable festival aren’t exactly the same thing. But both are taking advantage of theology to make a profit for an institution, whether it’s the church or it’s a college connected to the church.
Maybe Luther would have appreciated the use of vernacular in Christmas Fest, though. Much of the music is in English (or Norwegian) and the selections are pretty standard; the musical similarity is like the use of a familiar language. The community that attends the festival usually knows what to expect. However, maybe this stagnancy isn’t what a reformer like Luther would have wanted. Christmas Fest could change and grow with the times and the different goals it might be fulfilling now. Even though it’s built on a Christian tradition (Christmas) and still contains some artifacts of this, like the scripture readings, I would argue that a majority of the people who attend Fest do so just to enjoy the music and community and holiday season. Much of the religious interpretation of the festival has to come from the way individuals approach their thinking about it. But again, maybe Luther would like this! After all, maybe the sacred nature of Christmas Fest is something that can only be achieved by “faith alone.”