The St. Olaf Christmas Festival is an annual music celebration that began in 1912 and has been performed regularly since then by St. Olaf College students. Widely broadcast and telecast, it is regarded as one of the premier choral events in the world.
Since its founding by F. Melius Christiansen, who started the school's music department, the festival has attracted people to the Northfield campus from all over Minnesota and Wisconsin. It also draws alumni from around the nation.
F. Melius Christiansen began teaching music at St. Olaf in 1903. Seeking to improve the quality of choral music, Christiansen focused on developing the tradition of unaccompanied singing called a cappella. His choir soon began performing concerts at the school and touring around the region.
Under Christiansen's leadership, the St. Olaf Lutheran Choir became known as one of the finest choirs in the Midwest. To showcase the choir and celebrate Christmas, the choir performed in the first Christmas Program, as it was then known, on Dec. 17, 1912. The choir was called the St. Olaf Choral Union for that concert, and they performed in the Hoyme Memorial Chapel.
Under Christiansen's direction, the choir's status continued to grow. As the festival's audience expanded, the event moved from the chapel to the school's gym in 1922. Because of its popularity, the school added a second performance beginning in 1936.
The festival expanded to three shows in 1941. Because of World War II, the festival was reduced to one show in 1942 and 1943, but returned to three shows in 1945. It later grew to four shows.
In 1943, F. Melius Christiansen's son Olaf became the festival's director. He ran it until 1968, when Kenneth Jennings took over. Under Olaf Christiansen, the still-growing festival was moved to the Skogland Athletic Center (later named the Skogland Center). In 1990, St. Olaf graduate Anton Armstrong became director.
Attracting more than 15,000 people to Northfield, the early 21st century's Christmas Festival features five different choral groups. The St. Olaf Choir is the school's premier a cappella choir. The Cantorei is the choir that performs during Sunday services at the chapel. The Chapel Choir is the largest choir on campus. The Viking Chorus (men) and Manitou Singers (women) are choirs composed of first-year students.
During the festival, each choir performs as an individual unit before all five sing together to close the concert. More than 500 singers perform, accompanied by the St. Olaf Orchestra. At various times, audience members may rise and join the choir in singing, following along with lyrics published in the concert's program.
The St. Olaf Christmas Festival has been televised since 1975, around the country and even internationally, such as in Norway in 1978. It is broadcast on Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) and many of its affiliates, around the world on Armed Forces Television and Radio, on the Internet, and in movie theaters. PBS frequently broadcasts highlights as Christmas specials.
Bergmann, Leola Nelson. Music Master of the Middle West, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1944.
Frisch, Suzy. "Lighting the Way: St. Olaf Prepares to Observe Its 100th Christmas Festival," St. Olaf Magazine Fall 2011: 12-21
Shaw, Joseph M. The St. Olaf Choir: A Narrative. Northfield, MN: St. Olaf College, 1997.
In 1912 St. Olaf College begins a Christmas Program featuring the school's acclaimed choir, which grows into a festival that continues uninterrupted for over 100 years.