Christmas Festival: A Musical Commentary for Spiritual Fulfillment

In many ways, the St. Olaf Christmas Festival resembles kind of worship service. It contains many elements of a modern Lutheran service, including a processional, several congregational hymns, prayers, a Gospel reading (always a recounting of the nativity or a related story), more (a lot more) than one anthem, and a recessional. Most if not all of the music at Christmas Fest is “sacred”, using texts derived from scripture or other religious sources. It even has a theological message every year, albeit one that is a broad attempt at connecting pieces together and often drawn directly from a text (for example, “The World Renewed With Love Divine” coming from a very similarly named hymn that made an appearance). However, while all of this is true, attendance comes with an admission fee and the cultural pressure to wear a Norwegian sweater and visit the Caf for over-priced lutefisk and lefse. And while it takes the form of a worship service, nobody but perhaps the planning committee would call it such, as every other aspect points more to a concert as part of a larger cultural celebration.

When Leonard Bernstein wrote his Mass, he too stuck loosely to an existing liturgical form: the Roman Catholic mass. He hit all of the Mass Ordinary (in the right order) and many elements of the Mass Proper (although not really in the right order) and inserted his commentary, in a manner consistent with what was traditional and catered his content to the newly minted Sacrosanctum Concilium (a result of the Second Vatican Council’s move towards ecumenism and accessibility, or, more simply, an attempt to become more like protestants). And, like Christmas Fest, while Mass sticks roughly to a liturgical form, it is very non-liturgical and would never be used as liturgy. It is first a foremost a “concert mass”, or a mass intended for performance and consumption for the enjoyment of its listeners but not for worship.

Both Christmas Fest and Bernstein’s Mass clearly function more as concerts and performances than worship services, but that does not, however, negate their theological and spiritual significance. As Bernstein inserted his commentary on Religion and the American spiritual zeitgeist of the 1960s and 70s, the planning committee of Christmas Fest molds together a theme and selects music that best expresses that idea, creating a new commentary on the Gospel and the story of Christmas that we all know well. While it may seem very formulaic, it still is something that Luther would have valued as it presents the spiritual in a more thought-provoking and accessible setting, even if it tends to seem somewhat commercial and kitschy at times. And this formula works: while certainly not every participant or attendee of Christmas Fest has a “religious” or “spiritual” experience while singing or listening, many will say that they come out of the experience having found spiritual or religious value, and enough that many people make a yearly pilgrimage to campus to see it (my parents included, who came for the first time last year after being devoted members of the radio and TV audiences for years and don’t own any Norwegian sweaters and certainly don’t come for the lutefisk).

While Christmas Fest, like Bernstein’s Mass, would not be labeled by most as a worship service, it is nonetheless a valuable spiritual experience for many and with a theological commentary rooted in the traditions of the Reformation.

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