The St. Olaf Christmas Festival began humbly in 1912 as a concert given by student and faculty musicians for a gathering of family and friends in Hoyme Memorial Chapel shortly before the college closed for the holidays. Led by F. Melius Christiansen, the founder of the St. Olaf Music Department who was known for his visionary leadership, hard work, and artistry, the concert became an annual event. The St. Olaf Orchestra first participated in 1922, when the concert — its number of participants and audience members having grown in size — moved to the gymnasium (in what is now the Theater Building).
By the 1940s the program was known as the St. Olaf Christmas Festival and in 1967 it moved to its current location in Skoglund Athletic Center.
Today, more than 100 years after that first concert, the festival is a treasured holiday tradition and a spiritual homecoming for thousands of alumni and friends of the college.
The festival’s four performances feature a rich repertoire of classic Advent and Christmas compositions, familiar carols, hymns from around the world, and contemporary pieces, including those from non-traditional composers and cultures. The music is chosen to provide eternal messages of hope, peace, and healing.
Since 1930 a portion of the hymn Beautiful Savior, sung by choir members from the back of the gymnasium, has closed the program. Many of today’s concertgoers couldn’t imagine the festival without that tradition.
Each year the festival is organized around a theme to give the program spiritual and artistic cohesion. “To integrate more fully the contribution of every ensemble, we start with the theme and then find music that best serves that theme,” says St. Olaf Choir conductor Anton Armstrong ’78, the festival’s current artistic director. “We also are intentional about placing the choirs’ solo selections where they can best lift up the theme and give the festival a more organic focus.”
The festival has had only four artistic directors in its century-long history, including Armstrong and F. Melius Christiansen, Olaf Christiansen ’25, and Kenneth Jennings ’50.
A creative team of choral and orchestral conductors, pastors, and visual designers begins work on the program almost as soon as the previous year’s festival ends. This collaborative effort is focused on music, theology, pacing, and message, balancing the need for continuity and tradition with the introduction of new music that contributes to the program in a meaningful way.
For all involved, the St. Olaf Christmas Festival — a musical celebration of rich heritage and legacy — is a labor of love. It’s the perennial gift that St. Olaf shares with the world.