Perhaps no one has chronicled Christmas Festival better than Joseph M. Shaw '49, professor emeritus of religion and author of several books on St. Olaf history. In his book The St. Olaf Choir: A Narrative, Shaw provides a wealth of information on the Festival's development since its start in the early 20th century.
St. Olaf's first Christmas Festival was held on Dec. 17, 1912, in Hoyme Memorial Chapel. Known as a "Christmas Program," the concert was directed by F. Melius Christiansen and featured the St. Olaf Choral Union, which appears to have been a group of campus choirs. According to Shaw, the Union sang three pieces in Norwegian to begin the program, which included a tenor soloist, a speech by a pastor and a quartet singing "Holy Night."
In the following decade, the Festival underwent a number of changes. Due in part to a growing audience, college officials moved the 1922 program from the Chapel to the College gymnasium, which was located in the basement of what is now the Kelsey Speech-Theater Building. The year 1922 also marked the start of the St. Olaf Orchestra's participation in the event, providing music for the previously unaccompanied choirs.
According to Shaw, "Audience participation was not a feature of the program in the early years, but became a regular practice in the late '20s." From the '20s through the early '50s, a Festival tradition was to close with a women's quartet singing F. Melius Christiansen's arrangement of "Holy Night, Peaceful Night" from behind the risers, with the audience repeating each stanza. In 1933, the text of this song changed to the more familiar words "Silent Night, Holy Night."
The Festival included "Beautiful Savior" for the first time in 1924, and the song was included in most, but not all, programs through the 1970s.
Themes for the Christmas Festival became commonplace thanks to the direction of Olaf Christiansen, F. Melius Christiansen's successor as conductor of the St. Olaf Choir. Christiansen and other organizers "sought to make the program a spiritual and artistic whole," Shaw writes, with the result of themed Festivals such as "How Shall I Receive Thee?" (1948), "Thy Kingdom Come" (1950) and "He Has Done Wonders" (1968).
In 1967, the Festival moved to the recently completed Skoglund Athletic Center. According to Shaw, while a "worry was that the larger space would deprive the program of the warmth and intimacy experienced in the old gym," the Festival not only grew in popularity, but became "a multi-media production with no loss in the quality of the music."
Christmas Festival was first taped for television in 1975, with rebroadcasts occurring throughout the next few years. In the late 1970s, the 1975 program was rebroadcast through the Public Broadcasting Service, as well as Norwegian National Television. "These rebroadcasts one or two years after the original video-taped performance enabled viewers in distant places to enjoy a version of the Christmas Festival every year," Shaw writes. According to Kevin Stocks, marketing specialist for St. Olaf music organizations, the program is taped about every four years, with the most recent taping in 2001.
Throughout its history, Christmas Festival has received national recognition from publications such as The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. The College has also received letters of thanks from individual viewers, including former President Richard Nixon. According to Shaw, in 1986 Nixon wrote a letter to St. Olaf's president in response to a version of the program he'd seen on television. Nixon called the Festival "superb," writing, "In these days when there is so much trivial trash on TV, it was heartwarming and inspirational to listen to fine music so expertly produced for the television audience. All who were fortunate enough to hear the program are in your debt."
Producing such a high quality program is no easy task. According to College pastor Bruce Benson, planning for Christmas Festival begins in January of each year. Benson, the conductors and Judy Swanson, the program's artistic director for the past several years, meet to first decide on a theme. The group tries to combine themed music with a concept that will be relevant in the lives of audience members. "They come with ideas of music and themes of music in mind," Benson said. "But we also always have the world in mind."
The 2006 theme, "For God So Loves the World," is meant to connect to the College's theme for the school year, "Global Citizenship."
Benson has narrated Christmas Festival since he came to St. Olaf in 1981. He's written the program introduction for about 15 years, and he occasionally writes new stanzas for hymns that need to be lengthened. When asked if he has a favorite theme or program from years past, Benson said it's hard to choose.
"So far, every one has been meaningful to me, every one," he said.