History of the Christmas ConcertThe following brief history of the Concordia Christmas Concerts was drawn from a speech given by David J. Hetland, liturgical artist and creator of the Christmas Concert murals for 27 years:
Since 1927, the Concordia Christmas Concerts have grown to become a vital part of life within this institution, the community-at-large and, indeed, a good portion of the Upper Midwest region.
Today’s concerts are a far cry from the first ones initiated by a college piano and organ professor, Clara Duea. She organized the Concordia Music Club and one of their activities was a Christmas program that would gradually evolve into the famed Concordia Christmas Concerts of today.
Old Main’s chapel hosted the first program, but by 1928 it was moved to Moorhead’s Trinity Lutheran Church. Beginning in 1937 it alternated between Trinity and First Lutheran in Fargo.
In 1937, a young music professor from Northfield, Minn., also joined the faculty. He was Paul J. Christiansen, son of the noted St. Olaf College choir director F. Melius Christiansen. Among his responsibilities was the continuation of the Christmas Concert. In 1940, another new faculty member, Cyrus M. Running, came to Concordia to head the fledgling art department. Running brought with him an interest in both art and music and the two colleagues would become lifelong friends and partners in the amazing Christmas Concert tradition.
What has developed into the Christmas Concert murals began in Running’s first year: a large sheet of blue sateen in front of which was suspended a single star. There were also some simulated stained-glass windows covering the choir and organ lofts on either side of the sanctuary.
In 1943, the concert venue was moved to the Moorhead Armory to accommodate the ever-increasing public demand. After the war, with gas rationing no longer a deterrent to travel, people began coming from even greater distances. The Forum newspaper once took a survey and discovered that the Concordia Christmas Concert was the single event that attracted the greatest number of out-of-town visitors and generated the greatest economic impact on local businesses.
Because admission to the Christmas Concerts was for the first half-century a freewill offering, the event became known as “Concordia’s Christmas Gift to the Midwest.” And while economic necessity has forced the inception of tickets for sale, the admission price remains unusually modest.
By 1946, three performances were held and within six years, five were required to handle the demand. In 1952, Memorial Auditorium was completed and has since been the home of the Moorhead concerts.
In 1975, the college took its show on the road to Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. This was an effort to broaden Concordia’s outreach and to strengthen its ties with a large Twin Cities constituency of alumni and friends. Combined Moorhead/Minneapolis audiences of nearly 30,000 people were not uncommon in the 1970s.
Running retired in 1972 because of ill health, although he continued to design the concert art for another year. He died on Christmas day in 1976 at the age of 62. Paul Christiansen continued with the Christmas Concerts through 1985. Following a year of academic leave, he retired after serving the college for 50 years.
Running was replaced on the art faculty by Paul Allen who designed the Christmas Concert murals from 1974 to 1977. Beginning in 1978 and continuing through 2005, David J. Hetland took responsibility for the art, working first with Paul Christiansen and, after 1986, with René Clausen who succeeded Christiansen on the music faculty and as conductor of The Concordia Choir.
Today, the Concordia Christmas Concerts include five choirs and a full orchestra. In the past, mural production was accomplished with the assistance of over 100 volunteers from both campus and community. In 2009, newly commissioned artist Paul Johnson designed and printed the mural digitally for the first time in the concert's history.
Each year, the concert is carried on regional radio stations. Every 5 years, and most recently in 2009, the event is videotaped for airing on public and commercial television stations across the country. Listeners and viewers should consult local listings for broadcast dates and times.