Is Christmas Fest a Concert or a Worship Service?

Concerts with sacred repertoire are nothing new to any musician. Especially in my Catholic high school, every concert we sung had a few sacred pieces on the program. Every February we would put together a “Sacred Concert,” with all choirs (there were seven choirs and three extracurricular groups), where we asked audience members not to applaud until the end, similar to Christmas Fest. These sacred concerts were often during Lent, yet had nothing to do with the Lenten season, similar to Fest’s place within the Advent season, yet treated more as a Christmas celebration than an Advent service. Although music in the Catholic tradition has a different purpose, I came to St. Olaf without being bothered by Christmas Fest. I understood the idea of a sacred concert, but when it was explained to me that Fest was a worship service, I was confused. Why would the audience pay upwards of thirty dollars for a worship service, which should be free and open to the public?

The consumerism aspect of Fest is the part with which many participants struggle. The music fits into the idea of a service, but how do Swedish meatballs, lutefisk, and Norwegian sweaters relate to a prayer service? The students are not only bothered by the incredible amount of people crowding their campus, but also the sheer amount of hours they must dedicate to this event. Mass choir rehearsals begin in a week, and students sacrifice days out of their Thanksgiving break each year to return and prepare and exhaust themselves with four long concerts and a dress rehearsal, immediately before finals. These long hours do not help the participants to feel spiritually renewed.

While there are contentions as to what Christmas Fest actually is, some aspects of Fest align with Lutheran music theology. Each year, audience members (or congregation) are asked to sing four hymns at different points in the concert. Pastors Matt and Katie both read scripture that pertains to the theme selected by the directors. Christmas Fest uplifts the spirits of some audience members. I like to believe that Christmas Fest is popular not only because the music is beautiful, but because the music is beautiful AND spiritually uplifting, which is the music that Luther praised so highly.

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