Long-standing tradition Festival of Christmas helps community usher in the Advent season
Culture | Patnacia Goodman
As autumn fades into winter and Christmas music fills every store and coffee shop, Bethel’s music department is in full preparation to share its own Christmas cheer with the community.
“[President] Jay often says this is our gift to the community,” said Music Department Chair and Festival Committee member Jon Veenker.
According to Veenker, Festival, now in its 57th year, started in the gymnasium of the old Snelling campus. After the move, the celebration took place in the gym and at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church before the completion of Benson Great Hall.
The Festival ensemble is comprised of 250 to 300 students participating in Bethel Choir, Women’s Choral, Festival Choir, Wind Symphony, Orchestra and Handbell Ensemble. In four sold-out performances, over 6,000 people experience Festival of Christmas.
Each year, the Festival Committee plans a large portion of the performance in the spring and summer. Because the program is similar from year to year, the committee looks to integrate something different each year.
There are two special features of this year’s celebration. The first is a children’s choir assembled from the Bethel community.
“We did it for the first time about six years ago and it was a great success,” said Veenker. “People ask why we don’t do it every year, and that’s because it’s a lot of work, but we wanted to bring it back.”
The second is a first-time performance of a gospel piece accompanied by a Campus Ministries’ worship band under Pastor Curtis Hunt and Dr. Herbert Johnson.
The committee also plans a theme for Festival every year. This years’ committee, under the direction of Artistic Director Dr. Dennis Port, chose ‘Light’ as an overarching theme, which evolved into ‘Your Light has Come’.
The theme resonates not only with the faculty, but also with the students participating in Festival.
“It’s talking about how Christ is the light and how the darkness cannot fort the light, but how the light will overcome,” said Dan Sandberg, a member of the Bethel Choir.
Sandberg, a junior music education major, has been a part of Bethel Choir for three years and said Festival was something he looked forward to before Bethel. “It’s this thing that brings [the music department] together, and that’s really wonderful.”
Senior Stephen Seaberg agrees with the bonding experienced by the students who participate.
“We get to be together and enjoy all the different ways we can worship together through music. We really get to tie what we’re doing into ministry.”
Still, the preparation isn’t easy. As a vocalist, Sandberg said he practices four times a week, totaling about eight hours, and had to memorize 11 songs for Festival.
Seaberg has been playing the trumpet for 13 years and is a member of both the Wind Symphony and the Orchestra. He practices with both groups for about six hours a week, learning seven songs for the band, orchestra and full Festival ensemble.
“It can be hard to stay musically focused throughout the whole thing because you might play in the beginning then rest for five songs,” said Seaberg. “Some of my favorite moments are when I get to play along on the songs that the choir sings. I makes it feel more full.”
Both Seaberg and Sandberg acknowledge that although Festival practice takes up a lot of time, it is worth it in the end.
“Even though you can’t really see the faces of the people, you can definitely feel their energy and their wonder that is the story of Christmas,” Sandberg said. “We’re telling the same story, but we tell it in different ways.”
“It’s a labor of love from all the participants,” Veenker said, “and an immense amount of work, but I think everyone will always say it’s so worth the effort to be able to know, not from the self-serving part, that God is getting the glory.”
Seaberg agrees that the music department views Festival of Christmas as a form of worship and a way to help the community usher in the Advent season.
“You look at Festival and how beautiful the choirs and surroundings are, and you think about how much more beautiful it’s gonna be in heaven,” Sandberg said. “The whole experience brings people to tears, and it’s a wonderful thing to be able to help show God’s glory and beauty to everyone.”
Festival of Christmas runs Dec. 5 and 6 at 7:30 p.m. and Dec. 7 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Students can watch the dress rehearsal on Wednesday, Dec. 4.