Concordia’s Christmas traditions did not begin with the Christmas Concert.
Since Concordia’s founding, the Christmas season has been one of celebration. While the best-known tradition is that of the annual Christmas Concert, Concordia’s Christmas customs did not always include this Concordia staple.
From Concordia’s founding to the early 1940s, the annual Christmas Tree Party was a must-attend event usually sponsored by the junior class. Each year, students and faculty gathered in the Old Main gymnasium for a program often consisting of music, drama and oratory. Under the Christmas tree lay gifts purchased for no more than 10 to 15 cents that were exchanged among students and faculty. The evening closed with a favorite Norwegian tradition – caroling around the Christmas tree.
Concordia’s Christmas traditions changed in 1927 when the first Christmas Concert was held in Old Main’s chapel on Dec. 15. Organized by piano and organ professor Clara Deua and the Concordia Music Club, the first concert was given with the same passion of today’s productions but on a much smaller scale. Professor Herman Monson directed the choirs with Duea’s piano accompaniment while students pantomimed the nativity scene and a women’s sextet harmonized offstage. Other highlights of the event included the reading of the Christmas gospel by President Brown and the Rev. Carl B. Ylvisaker’s oration about the origin and meanings of Christmas hymns. To close, the audience joined the choir in singing “Joy to the World” before moving to the gymnasium for the annual Christmas Tree Party.
As the Christmas Concert established itself as an annual tradition, the venue for the concert changed in order to accommodate increasingly larger audiences. In 1928, the concert was moved from Old Main to Trinity Lutheran Church and, in 1937, Fargo’s First Lutheran Church hosted the event. For the next five years, the site alternated between Trinity and First Lutheran. Due to space limitations, the Christmas Concert was moved to the Moorhead Armory in 1942. The concert found its permanent home 10 years later when Memorial Auditorium was built.
The Concordia Christmas Concert is nationally recognized for both its musical and visual artistry. In 1940, art professor Cyrus Running came to Concordia and began leading the concert’s art direction. The first backdrop he designed consisted of a single star suspended in front of draped blue sateen flanked by two faux stained glass windows. When the concert moved to the Armory in 1942, an acoustic backdrop was needed. Painted murals thus provided a functional purpose and aesthetic pleasure. The acoustic backdrops became a vital component of the concert when it moved to Memorial Auditorium due to the extensive space. This larger venue simultaneously allowed the murals to become more expansive as well. In 1973, professor Paul Allen replaced Running, who retired due to poor health. Allen continued to design the murals until his own retirement in 1977 at which time David Hetland assumed the mural tradition. Hetland, one of Running’s students, once humorously described his art as “disposable” that is “best when viewed in the dark and from a great distance.” For the next 28 years, Hetland continued to dazzle concert audiences with his works.
Dr. Carroll Engelhardt, author of Concordia’s centennial history, wrote, “The Christmas Concert symbolizes the Christian community of Concordia. … It involves the time, talents and teaching of many professors and students who dedicate themselves to this annual celebration.” This year, Concordia will continue its holiday spirit as its annual Christmas traditions have done for more than a century.
– Contributed by Lisa Sjoberg, college archivist