Join me on December 23 at 7:00 p.m. for the 100th anniversary performance of St. Olaf Christmas live from St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN
It was a century ago when a Norwegian immigrant named F. Melius Christiansen created this special program at St. Olaf College. His intention was simply to bring together students and faculty - friends and family and maybe a few locals - to take a break from the stress of the holidays and contemplate in word and song the Christmas story - and maybe capture some of the awe and wonder of the time that can often get lost in all the seasonal activity.
Anton Armstrong is the Artistic Director of the festival and tells me that he hopes that the festival can deliver a kind of message, though what that might be is up to us.
"We offer people an opportunity to come in out of crazy lives, hectic moments, and take a moment to sit back and reflect on the good things in their lives, those things in which they struggle, and allow the music to be a healing balm."
Now celebrating its centennial, this festival is no longer simply a Christmas Program, but an expanded festival concert that is carefully planned for nearly a year the minute the last year's festival has ended.
Christopher Aaspas is a graduate of St. Olaf College and heads up the St. Olaf Chapel Choir and Viking Chorus. He says planning this particular year's festival required a lot of looking back and contemplating where they've been and where they're going as a College.
"It's hard to imagine what it must have been like 100 years ago. What was life like not only in this country, but at St. Olaf College? We've come far, especially as a college with a rich Norwegian heritage, as a college of the church, as a college that is seeking as a liberal arts institution to really enable whole human beings to fulfill lives of worth and service. And then to have this celebration of 100 years of the Christmas festival. It's a really rewarding process."
What you'll hear Sunday afternoon are five choirs - including the freshmen men's Viking Chorus; freshman women's Manitou Singers; the largest choir at St. Olaf, the Chapel Choir; Cantorei, a group of both singers and instrumentalists and the famed 75-member a capella St. Olaf Choir, plus a full symphony orchestra.
Pulling together all these forces in a celebration is hard work, but John Ferguson who conducts, arranges and plays organ tells me it's worth it for the students.
"One of the things that the Christmas festival experience does for our students is suggest they understand better the notion of what it means to try and do something well. And I think this transcends into all kinds of things, not just music making. It's a little bit like an onion. You peel away one layer and then you discover there's another layer, and another layer. And so you keep working, trying to polish and perfect and perceive better what it is that you're about. And I think that's a very special gift."
This feature is part of Classical Minnesota Public Radio's Holiday Programming.
The gift John Ferguson speaks of is something that changes us. The concert is not just entertainment. It's a kind of spiritual journey taking us from the expectation of Advent, to that holiest of moments when Christ was born in a lowly stable to the shouts of exultation and joy from a heavenly chorus. Anton Armstrong again sums it up better than anybody.
"There is this moment, and for people whether they've been coming to this event for 60 or 70 years, whether they're a first timer - they come out of this transformed. They are different people when they entered 90 minutes earlier, and if that is our gift to them, then all the hard work these years, all these gray hairs is well worth it."