Festival of Christmas Brings the Bethel Community Together

The faces and melodies change slightly from year to year, but the worshipful experience and Christ-centered message of Festival has remained the same for 62 years.

By Monique Kleinhuizen ’08, GS’16, new media strategist

December 05, 2018 | 2 p.m.

Festival of Christmas 2018

Festival of Christmas 2018

“Festival has such momentum that you can’t stop it,” says Department of Music Chair Jonathan Veenker with a laugh, as he describes the weeks leading up to one of Bethel’s favorite traditions, Festival of Christmas. This year’s four performances drew a sold-out crowd, with a huge team of staff, students, and professional musicians working tirelessly to make it all happen. “We just grab on. It’s like a strong river...you can either go with it or fight against it, and you wouldn’t get very far.”

Veenker, Producer Kevin Shull, orchestra conductor Hannah Schendel, and Artistic Director Steven Thompson were knee-deep in that river beginning in early summer. They were later joined by new music faculty members Paula Holmberg—who directed the Bethel Choir, Men’s Choir, and Festival Choir—and Curtis Kettler, Women’s Choir director. The creative details and students involved in Festival change year to year, so the task is to create a unique experience around a particular mix of student-musician and staff talent. But the group acknowledges that Festival also brings a welcome familiarity and consistency.

“On Easter, you’re always going to proclaim the cross. At Christmas, you’re always going to talk about light overcoming darkness,” says Shull, who says there’s a joy and a deep responsibility that comes with guiding the Bethel community, musically and visually, through worship and celebration at Festival. But there’s one thing that’s sure, no matter the musical selections: “You can’t go wrong with that story!” he says.  

This year’s theme—“Joy Has Dawned Upon the World!”—mirrored the concert’s processional, “Sunrise” from Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo’s “Sunrise Mass.” While students in years past have walked in from the back of Benson Great Hall holding their signature burning candles, this year they filtered in from the front, giving the audience a sense of light building along with the music.

The concert’s program design was also noticeably different this year, with horizontal pages allowing for a full display of the oil painting “Radiant Sky” by California artist Erin Hanson (used with permission). Both creative elements offered a slight change of perspective, a greater appreciation of the beauty of Christmas within a dark and often difficult world.

“Musically, that piece is like a dawn, a sunrise,” adds Veenker. The opening reading, from Isaiah 11, was completed before the music started. That particular Scriptural prophecy foretold of “a shoot from the stump of Jesse” on whom the Spirit of the Lord shall rest. The music, then, was like His gradual arrival. “We were able to make good use of the full space around the hall. But it was very different for us musically.”

The rest of the program featured a mix of musical styles and even languages, with Latvian, Nigerian, and Latin represented. There were recognizable tunes like Good King Wenceslas and Hark! The Herald Angels Sing interspersed with traditional carols and diverse instrumental pieces. The Festival Orchestra, Wind Symphony, Handbell Ensemble, and four choirs joined in varying combinations, alternating with Scripture passages read by students.

Bethel Handbell Ensemble performs during Festival of Christmas 2018.

Bethel Handbell Ensemble performs during Festival of Christmas 2018.

“Music alumni remember two things from their time at Bethel: tours and Festival. Performing in a space like that—in this beautiful hall, with great acoustics, 200 other performers, with a full house, after working so hard for so many months—that is an amazing experience,” says Shull, who admits that there’s a lot expected of students participating in Festival. He says that one addition to Festival week this year was an evening specially designed to give prospective music students a taste of the event from the student performers’ perspective. By special invitation, high school musicians and their families enjoyed dinner in Monson Dining Center, dessert with President Jay Barnes, and an exclusive backstage tour before the Thursday concert began. The goal was to encourage them to continue in their musical studies and to get a glimpse of what college-level performance could look like, because “you have to be there, you have to experience that from the stage, to understand it,” Shull adds.

More than 200 student musicians performed in Festival of Christmas, with 100 additional students serving as ushers, traffic control personnel, robe-steamers, and servers at a traditional Swedish Smörgåsbord celebrating staff and donors. Student musicians also performed around campus leading up to each performance, allowing for an immersive, multisensory experience the moment guests arrived.

“Musically, we go for a mix of new and old, with different styles. But the story is always familiar: there’s the prophesy, birth, and the second coming, sort of your ‘three-point sermon’ in musical form,” says Veenker. Then he quotes another Festival piece, “The Work of Christmas” by Dan Forrest, whose lyrics by Howard Thurman read:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:  

To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music from the heart. 

At Bethel, the atmosphere at Christmas is a unique one. Festival, explains Veenker, isn’t just about beautiful music. And Jesus didn’t just come to the manger; He came for the cross. As Christians, there’s a responsibility that comes with that. The three-point sermon is this, he says: “They said He’s coming. He’s here.” Veenker pauses with a smile before the third, vital point in the sermon. “Now let’s tell the world.”

Festival of Christmas, 1966

Festival of Christmas, 1966

About Festival of Christmas

Festival of Christmas is one of Bethel’s premier annual events, uniting the community with a beautifully decorated campus and worshipful music setting the tone for the holiday season. If you missed this year’s production or wish to commemorate it, you can order a copy of this or previous recordings of Festival of Christmas.

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