Reimagining the St. Olaf Christmas Festival for the Global Pandemic
With the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to escalate, so many traditions have been necessarily modified or canceled. In early December, that included the annual in-person St. Olaf Christmas Festival, a cherished event in which countless people gather on campus to celebrate the beginning of the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany season.
“The loss of Christmas Festival this year is felt in many ways,” says Tosdal Professor of Music Anton Armstong ’78, artistic director of the Christmas Festival and conductor of the St. Olaf Choir. “This event is a shared endeavor that brings our campus and the wider community together in such a special way. I certainly know the students [have missed] the festival, although maybe not the extra rehearsals. And I know they miss the time spent bonding and collaborating with one another.”
The Christmas Festival, first held in 1912, has carried on throughout multiple wars, the Great Depression, and numerous incidents of national and worldwide turbulence. This is not the first time the Christmas Festival has been canceled; it isn’t even the first time it’s been canceled due to a global pandemic. The 1918 pandemic impacted countless colleges and universities, St. Olaf among them, and the Christmas Festival, still in its fledgling form, was canceled after classes were halted and students sent home early for their own safety.
One hundred years later, technological advancements have made it possible for St. Olaf to offer a unique holiday musical celebration through streaming/broadcasting, the Internet, and digital audio and video recordings. On Sunday, December 6, on what would have been the final day of the 2020 St. Olaf Christmas Festival, All Earth is Hopeful, a virtual concert and music program offered healing and hope to countless viewers, both close to home and abroad.
Initial planning for the 2020 Christmas Festival began in January, before the pandemic reached the United States. But when it was clear that COVID-19 would affect everyone’s life for the foreseeable future and St. Olaf prepared for an academic year that would be unlike any other, the festival’s artistic committee knew a traditional Christmas Festival would not be possible.
“We discussed how we could create a program that would reflect the ethos of Christmas at St. Olaf, while honoring the despair that COVID-19 has created, not only in our separation from each other and our loved ones but the loss people have experienced — the hundreds of thousands of lives lost to this virus,” says Armstong.
As the committee continued to discuss a reimagined program, they kept returning to a phrase from a Latin American carol, Todo la Tierra, which ultimately led to the theme All Earth is Hopeful.
“We felt this was a strong statement and an aspiration for not only the St. Olaf community but for our country and the world as well,” says Armstong. “I want people to feel a sense of hope, that we can have a life beyond COVID-19. The virus has taken so much from people around the world, and in our own community. This holiday season, many of us won’t have the opportunity to be together with family, friends, and those we love most. I hope this music can provide people with healing, and some of that lost hope and joy.”
All Earth is Hopeful showcases music from recent Christmas Festival programs as well as additional material from festival concerts not seen in many years. Nothing can substitute for the communal and elevating exchange that happens between musicians and in-person attendees of the St. Olaf Christmas Festival. However, this opportunity provided the artistic committee with a chance to reflect on and revisit old favorites, to highlight particular themes and messages, and to recognize the current climate of the nation and the campus.
“Along with the pandemic, we’ve contended with civil and racial unrest in this country and on campus, sparked by the murder of George Floyd in our own backyard. There is a great deal of work that needs to be done, yet I remain hopeful we can turn a page that leads us to more racial harmony,” says Armstrong. “I think All Earth is Hopeful also represents a recognition of the musical contributions of black and brown people from the U.S. and abroad. It’s not limited to this scope, but it’s been an intentional choice to share a message of love and unity, from voices of populations often marginalized in our society.”
While no one knows what 2021 will bring, the St. Olaf community is looking forward to welcoming old friends and newcomers back to campus, when everyone can once again experience the uplifting, healing power of music in person. For that, all earth is hopeful.
To watch All Earth is Hopeful and to view updates, please visit christmas.stolaf.edu.
St. Olaf College will distribute, in cooperation with Twin Cities Public Television, a new one-hour holiday program featuring material from the 2019 Christmas Festival, A New Song of Grace and Truth. The program premieres December 17, 2020, on PBS television stations nationwide. Check your local public television listings for program information in your area.