Annual St. Olaf Christmas Fest returns after year off to a COVID-19 cautious campus

St. Olaf held the 2021 Christmas Festival, “Love Divine,” on Dec. 3, 4, and 5 after cancelling last year’s festival due to COVID-19. The immense concert in Skoglund draws visitors from around the country to campus. 

Christmas Festival is a longstanding tradition at St. Olaf, having started in 1912. Six music groups on campus participated this year — the St. Olaf Orchestra, the St. Olaf Choir, St. Olaf Chapel Choir, St. Olaf Cantorei, Viking Chorus, and Manitou Singers. In total, close to 500 student musicians participated in Christmas Festival.

Six thousand people — students, faculty, staff, and visitors — attended Christmas Festival this year.

The large number of participants and attendees, paired with the dangerous nature of singing, raised COVID-19 concerns among students and the College. In response to these concerns, the College implemented a number of safety protocols. These included requiring proof of vaccination and mask wearing for visitors and performers, testing all performers three times, and reducing the seating capacity in Skoglund by ten percent, about 280 seats.

Visitors stopped at tables around campus entrances where student employees checked their vaccination cards and gave them wristbands. These wristbands allowed entrance into the Christmas Festival, as well as Stav Hall for a Scandinavian Meal, another yearly tradition as a part of Christmas Fest. 

“These plans were developed in consultation with our epidemiologist, and took into account the rate of COVID-19 transmission on campus and in our broader community, estimated attendance numbers, building ventilation and the duration of Christmas Festival programs,” said Enoch Blazis, Campus COVID Response Lead and Vice President for Advancement, in an email to The Olaf Messenger.

Out of close to 500 total student musicians in Christmas Festival, four tested positive for COVID-19 across the three rounds of testing.

“I felt very safe the entirety of Christmas Fest week! The multiple rounds of testing (three times for musicians) was very smart, and contributed greatly to my comfort level! I am also glad they decided to make masks required for both guests (obviously) but also musicians. It was rumored early on that masks might not be mandatory, but it was definitely the correct choice especially with the current state of covid in Minnesota,” wrote St. Olaf Choir member Will McIntyre in a message to the Olaf Messenger. 

Another factor that emerged in the weeks leading up to the festival was the recently identified Omicron COVID-19 variant. There are currently few confirmed cases in the U.S., but the emergence of a new variant nonetheless caused some concern.

 “We are monitoring the situation, but have not significantly altered our plans and the Delta variant remains the predominant circulating strain in Minnesota and nationally,” Blazis said about the Omicron variant.

The risks of holding Christmas Festival during a pandemic — and the importance of taking serious precautions — crystallized on Nov. 28, when St. Olaf Choir director Anton Armstrong ’78 tested positive for COVID-19. Armstrong announced his positive result to the St. Olaf Choir and then to Festival participants as a whole. 

Armstrong remained in isolation during Christmas Festival. Chapel Choir and Viking Chorus director Tesfa Wondemagegnehu and Mark Stover ’01 filled in for Armstrong in directing the choirs. In a pre-recorded message at the beginning of the festival, he announced that he was in isolation and urged people to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Despite the challenges, all of the performances went on as planned. No immediate COVID-19 fallout has been seen as of now. 

Freya Gordon ’24 sang in the Christmas Fest as a part of Chapel Choir. “I will admit when we first got in front of the audience, it was kind of eerie. Seeing all the masked faces, which is something I should be used to by now, was unsettling because it made clear that covid is not something of the past and doesn’t seem to be heading there anytime soon with the rising cases and new variants,” Gordon said. “However, once the music started, I was reminded of how lucky and beautiful the moment really was. Making music with all of the others who put in so much time and effort after such a long time without it made me realize how much it was truly missed and the power it holds!”  

Despite the regulations, students still enjoyed the tradition of the festival. All of the classic elements were able to continue through the challenges of the pandemic: Nordic sweaters, singing “Beautiful Savior,” and Scandinavian food in the cafeteria. 

“Being in that performing space, standing right next to our fellow musicians as we sang ‘Beautiful Savior’ is definitely a memory I am going to cherish for the rest of my life. It had been so long since a live audience that size has heard music from us Oles, and you could tell they missed it (almost) as much as we all did,” McIntyre said. 

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