Christmas Choral Music and What it Says About America

It’s Christmas Eve (although you probably won’t read this until some time after) and I’m sitting in front front of the television now watching the St. Olaf College Christmas Festival. This morning I listened to the radio broadcast of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from the famous King’s College Chapel at Cambridge University. Both festivals date from the early decades of the 20th century, both are widely listened to around the world, and both involve lots of wonderful Christmas music. For professionalism and pomp, however, Cambridge’s presentation beat St. Olaf’s.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone: the Cambridge event takes place at one of the world’s top universities, in an ancient and iconic building, and involves the 100 or so top musicians from a student body of about 25,000 (16,000 undergraduates.) St. Olaf’s event, on the other hand, takes place in a field house and involves 500 musicians drawn from an all undergraduate student body of 3,000. Although St. Olaf would make most lists of the 50 best liberal arts colleges in the United States, it’s not even the wealthiest or most academically selective school in its small hometown of Northfield, Minnesota. (That honor goes to Carleton College.)

I think this actually reveals a lot about the United States. Unlike virtually every other country in the world, no city, no corporation, no individual, and, in this case, no university can claim leadership in all things. The college leading the Christmas festival in the U.S. doesn’t take place at Harvard or Yale or even a top music school like Juilliard or NYU. It takes place at a very good small college that puts on a top notch show.