One of the best presents at Christmas is often taken for granted—the gift of music. Unlike other churches that rely on cantors, choirs or singers to lead worship music, Lutherans are known for their robust tradition of congregational singing, especially at Christmas.
This deep musical tradition dates from Martin Luther, who said singing was a form of prayer and the living voice of the gospel, and from German composers Bach and Mendelssohn, who influenced much of Lutheran worship music.
“Christmas was very much on Luther’s mind,” said John Weit, ELCA program director for music.
In addition to singing favorite hymns, choral music is a big part of the season for Lutherans, and several ELCA-related schools are recognized for their Christmas concerts, including Concordia College, Moorhead, Minn.; Augsburg College, Minneapolis; Luther College, Decorah, Iowa; Lenoir-Rhyne University, Hickory, N.C.; and St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minn. Several of these Lutheran schools will stream their performances, which in the past were carried on public radio.
“From the time that Martin Luther composed his Christmas hymn ‘From Heaven Above to Earth I Come’ as a way of teaching the Christmas story to his children around the Christmas tree, Lutherans have heralded the celebration of Christ’s birth with song,” said Gregory Peterson, head of the music department at Luther College, where the annual concert is called “Christmas at Luther.”
“Music is a gift from God and we use it to celebrate and return thanks,” he said. “We sing because it seals on our lips and in our hearts God’s deep love for us in the person of Jesus Christ.”
It wouldn’t be Christmas without a concert for Kristi Knutson, administrative assistant in the music department at Luther. “ ‘Christmas at Luther’ is the kickoff for my Christmas season,” she said. “The music is absolutely wonderful and is sung and played with so much enthusiasm by the almost 600 students. The moment you walk into the concert hall, ‘Christmas at Luther’ is evident by all the beautiful Christmas scenery and the excitement is felt by all.”
History in harmony
The St. Olaf Christmas Festival originated in 1912 and has garnered significant recognition nationally due to performances being simulcast in movie theaters nationwide. The festival features more than 500 student musicians who are members of five choirs and the St. Olaf Orchestra. Its 2013 television special, “Christmas in Norway with the St. Olaf Choir,” even won two regional Emmy awards.
This December more than 12,000 people will turn out for four Christmas Festival concerts at the school.
“Just like it wouldn’t be Christmas without our favorite music from Bing Crosby, choral music is a mark of the Christmas season,” said Anton Armstrong, who has conducted the St. Olaf Choir for 27 years.
Armstrong said his artistic team works on the Christmas Festival 11 ½ months per year. This year’s theme, “Light Dawns; Hope Blooms,” reflects the hope that the world needs right now, he said.
This theme developed from a refrain in a piece the choir will perform, “Light Dawns on a Weary World” composed by Mack Wilberg and text by Mary Louise Bringle.
“What does this world long for? This is a world filled with darkness right now,” Armstrong said. “Christ is the light of the world. Turn on the news and you see messages of doom and gloom. People are looking for hope. We need to have hope, and the pieces we perform are exactly that—songs of hope and caring for one another.”
Music from St. Olaf’s Christmas Festival will also reflect other strong Lutheran themes, including justice and peace, equality and care for creation. In addition to Scandinavian and German traditions, the concert includes music from around the world, Armstrong said, which reflects the worldwide concerns of St. Olaf and the ELCA.
“The pieces define our Lutheran tradition and express Lutheranism at its best—care for the planet and care for each other,” he said.
Christmas is love
Lenoir-Rhyne is also expecting full houses for its Christmas choir concerts, and director of choral activities Ryan Luhrs thinks people’s love for the season’s music runs deep.
“I think the love of Christmas music transcends many aspects of our culture,” he said. “It’s perhaps the reason some radio stations begin playing Christmas music exclusively this time of year.
“I sense that many people have strong emotional attachments to the Christmas season and use music both to connect with their past and celebrate in the present. I believe this connection is especially strong among Lutherans because of our hymn-singing tradition, both in churches and even in the home.”
Doug Brandt, a New York City-based composer who has written choral Christmas works with sacred texts, believes Christmas carols resonate with people no matter their religion or background because of the universal theme of hope.
“Perhaps it’s the struggle of the poor or the humble family that’s turned away from an inn and has to make do in a barn,” said Brandt, whose setting of Wendell Berry’s pastoral Christmas poem “Remembering That It Happened Once” was just published.
“The messages that come from the words and music in Christmas songs, sacred and secular alike, are about peace, joy, giving, singing, coming together, stars, night, childbirth, motherhood, humility, simplicity. Those are all pretty universal themes. Perhaps it’s the mystery of all of those things, taken both together and individually, that makes Christmas music so special.”
Weit agrees: “As church music has evolved, it seems that now Christmas music resonates ecumenically. We share so much in the hymnal Christmas section with other faiths, and it’s the norm to sing carols outside the church. It’s no wonder choral groups do well this time of year.”
But perhaps a line from “This Christmastide,” which will be performed at this year’s St. Olaf festival, sums it up best: “Truth and love and hope abide this Christmastide.” As Armstrong said, “It brings it to today—the need for this in today’s world.”