Lutefisk Madness!

…was the endearing alternative title I concocted when discussing The St. Olaf Christmas Festival™ with my saxophone student’s mom last week. Personally, I think my title is an apt one for the sweater-rampant, tradition-steeped, yet also spiritually invigorating “machine” we have churned out for more than a century here on the Hill. Christmas Fest has become one of the most significant traditions on this campus (which is saying something, given St. Olaf’s overt though largely harmless cult vibe). It’s been described on blogs and news articles as a sort of “choral Mecca,” where music lovers in the upper Midwest to come out of hibernation for a few days to joyfully bask in the overwhelming warmth of Fest. There’s songs to warm the heart, Norwegian sweaters to warm the body, and of course the lye-scented glory of lutefisk to warm the soul. However, there’s some definitely un-Lutheran (or at least un-Reformation) aspects of Fest too. Before I open this can of worms too far, allow me to state that I have sung in this Yuletide institution every year. Every year, I have strongly mixed feelings about it, and yet I definitely look forward to Fest more this year than ever before.

All this to say: I’m not convinced that Luther would be sold on Christmas Fest. (To be honest, I certainly wasn’t sold my first year.) The fact that Fest has one foot solidly planted in the concert realm and one foot definitely rooted in worship presents conflicts with Reformation theology immediately. It’s difficult to imagine Luther wholeheartedly endorsing Fest because of the theological inconsistencies that tend to happen when we have a two-hour-and-then-some choir concert and sprinkle in a few congregational hymns and occasional scripture readings. Fest is, after all, mostly a performance (with five enormous choirs, a 93-member orchestra, and – the conductors might disagree with me on this – an abundance of rehearsal). It is a performance of stunning sacred music usually interpreted from a contemporary Christian perspective that enriches the faith and/or touches the hearts of many both in the audience and on stage each year – but ultimately, it is a Christmas concert. (This, to me, is most clear when we recognize that Fest is a money spinner – worship services don’t usually $30 to attend.)

Generally, when comparing Reformation theology and Christmas Fest, I see a pretty even mix of consistency and conflict between the two. For example, most of us have a good idea of how hard all the musicians involved work, spending numerous hours perfecting their pieces together. On the one hand, this sounds a lot like Reformation vocational ideals – the concept that people should use and refine their considerable talents throughout life to serve others. It’s also reminiscent of the ars perfecta which Luther was so fond of listening to (but considered inappropriate in worship settings). Another example of this dichotomy is the use of scripture and congregational singing. The sights and sounds of a vast audience and multiple choirs and instrumentalists making hymns together would certainly appeal to Luther in his day, but the undeniable fact that those hymns (and, in some ways, the Scripture readings) are overshadowed by the music would most likely not sit as well with him.

Ultimately, I feel that considering Reformation theology when planning or performing in Fest would be wise – to an extent. By no means do I think we should revamp Christmas Fest to be more Reformation-friendly purely for the sake of consistency with Lutheran theology. However, I think we can learn something from Reformation ideals to better bring those intentions to Christmas Fest: the importance of participation, the power of human connection to the divine/spiritual through music, and gratitude for the many gifts we have been given.

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