History of Christmas with Wartburg

The holiday tradition that began in 1947 celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2007. Although both the college and the program have grown considerably since then, the 1947 program was remarkably similar in format to the current production It opened with the audience singing “O Come All Ye Faithful” while the Wartburg Choir and the Chapel Choir processed through the aisles of the Waverly High School auditorium, now the junior high auditorium.

After performances by both choirs, reading of the Christmas gospel by Dr. Alfred Haefner, professor of Greek, and Christmas greetings from President C.H. Becker, the program ended with everyone singing “Silent Night.”

Dr. Edwin Liemohn directed the Wartburg Choir, and Edfield Odegard directed the Chapel Choir. In what became a tradition until her retirement in 1968, art professor Helen Wright was responsible for the stage setting, which in 1947 featured a nativity scene. Reserved seats were available by writing to Dr. A.W. Swensen, longtime chemistry department chair and Wartburg Artist Series director.

“This is the first concert sponsored exclusively by Wartburg College, which we hope will become a traditional holiday event on the second Sunday in December,” said a note in the program.

Program moves to campus in 1949
When Knights Gymnasium opened on the Wartburg campus, its stage became the Christmas concert venue, beginning in December 1949. The 1951 program was the first to use the title "Christmas at Wartburg." By that time, the Wartburg Band and the Castle Singers were included. Many of the early Christmas at Wartburg programs featured works by Castle Singers director Dr. E.A. Hovdesven and Wartburg Choir director Dr. Edwin Liemohn.

Dr. Warren Schmidt joined the music faculty in 1950 and subsequently became Christmas with Wartburg organist for the next 40 years. He recalls moving a portative pipe organ to Knights Gym for the annual program, which by 1953 was attracting an audience of more than 1,500.

Auditorium provides new setting in 1961
Construction of the Chapel-Auditorium, later named Neumann Auditorium, created a new home for Christmas at Wartburg in 1961. Although the program has remained in the auditorium for most of the ensuing years, it moved back to Knights Gym in 1967 and 1968 and from 1976 to 1982.

Format takes new direction from 1968 to 1973
In 1968, the Wartburg Community Symphony Orchestra, an oratorio chorus, and the Wartburg Choir and Castle Singers performed Handel’s Messiah in the gym, followed the next year by Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, which included the local high school chamber choir and a sixth-grade select choir.

The program moved back to Neumann Auditorium and took on a more dramatic flair in the early 1970s. The Castle Singers and the Wartburg Chamber Players presented A Christmas Carol in 1970 and The Play of Herod, a 13th century musical drama, in 1971, followed by Amahl and the Night Visitors in 1972. In 1973, drama students, the Wartburg Band, Castle Singers, Chamber Orchestra and Gospel Choir were involved in W.H. Auden’s Christmas Oratorio.

Program resumes traditional format in 1974
Christmas at Wartburg returned to its more traditional format in 1974, featuring the Wartburg Concert Band, Castle Singers, Wartburg women’s chorus and chamber choir, faculty women’s chorus and flute choir. Dr. William Jellema, who became Wartburg’s 14th president that year, narrated the program, which was presented in Neumann Auditorium.

Off-campus performances begin in 1979
Christmas at Wartburg moved off campus for the first time in 1979, when a performance was added at West High School in Waterloo. In 1982, the venue changed to Nazareth Lutheran Church in Cedar Falls. The college added a Des Moines performance in 1986, first at Plymouth Congregational UCC Church for three years, and since 1989 at the Civic Center of Greater Des Moines. As part of the college’s Sesquicentennial celebration, an extra performance at the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids was included on the 2001 schedule. Iowa Public Television taped the program in 1989 and 1999 and will also tape this year's Des Moines performance.

Music facilities change
In 1947, music groups rehearsed in Old Main, the oldest building on the campus. The opening of Knights Gym in 1949 provided rehearsal space for the band, and a new Fine Arts Center, later named Liemohn Hall of Music, was dedicated in 1956 as the new home of the music department. Growth in enrollment and in music programs led to construction of the present Bachman Fine Arts Center, which opened in 1991.

Meals become popular accompaniment to program
A Christmas Carol Buffet in the Student Union debuted in 1971, scheduled between the afternoon and evening performances of Christmas at Wartburg. Members of the Wartburg Choir and Concert Band, who were not involved in the early 1970s programs, provided entertainment.

A roast pig served as the buffet centerpiece, and tickets in 1971 cost $2.50 for adults and $1.25 for children. Student entertainment at the dinners continued for a number of years, but eventually became too taxing for the musicians with the additional performances in Cedar Falls and Des Moines. Today, the Wartburg Dining Services staff continues to offer a festive dinner in conjunction with one of the campus performances.

Academic schedule adds challenges
Christmas at Wartburg occurred on the second weekend of December until the college implemented a 4-4-1 academic calendar in 1967. Under the original two-semester calendar, students took finals after their return from Christmas break. The 4-4-1 calendar moved finals to the second week of December, and the Christmas program moved to the first weekend of the month. Added performances mean that the program often begins at the end of November. This year’s Nov. 27 program is one of the earliest on record.

Estes adds prestige to program
When opera star Simon Estes joined the Wartburg faculty in 2002 as distinguished professor and artist-in-residence, he began making regular appearances with Christmas with Wartburg as a soloist and with the Wartburg Choir. Choir director Dr. Paul Torkelson describes Estes’ 2006 performance of Sweet Little Jesus Boy as one of the “incredible moments” in the program’s history.

Wartburg at its best
“There were occasions when I thought for me personally, the most moving moments came in something done by the Wind Ensemble or a winsome piece by the Castle Singers. The blend of talents and musical organizations was surely Wartburg at its best.” – Dr. Robert Vogel ’56, Wartburg College president from 1980 to 1998

An exhilarating experience
“Christmas with Wartburg was always exhilarating and a great time for me. I looked forward to it every year. One of the most amazing things was playing before a full house in Des Moines.” – Dr. Robert E. Lee, professor emeritus, who came to Wartburg in 1959 as director of bands and whose last Christmas with Wartburg performance was in 1994

A powerful evening
“I have a very powerful memory of Travis Wilkens at the Civic Center, when as an elementary-school student, he stood in the center of the stage and sang a solo, “I Wonder as I Wander,” to end the program. The whole place was mesmerized. People were crying when he finished. It was a very powerful evening—and the earliest recruiting I ever did.” – Dr. Paul Torkelson ’76, Wartburg Choir director since 1984 and mentor to Travis Wilkins, who later sang with the choir as a Wartburg student and now teaches in Grimes, Iowa

A moving thank-you to students
"One year, when the program ended with a performance in Waverly on Monday, we hosted a pizza party afterward to thank the students, and President Vogel serenaded them with, Sweet Little Jesus Boy, as a tribute for their significant efforts." – The Rev. Phil Froiland, retired director of church relations, who oversaw Christmas with Wartburg from 1986 to 1994

Program keeps focus
“The scope of the program has gotten much bigger. It was much simpler in my day, but it has maintained the integrity of always focusing on the birth of Jesus and scripture.” – Lois Burmeister Schoof ’52, who sang in the first Christmas program in Knights Gym and went on to direct school music programs and serve as worship and music coordinator and choir director at St. John Lutheran Church in Cedar Falls

Wright performs magic
“The remarkable thing about the early days was the magic Helen Wright was able to perform on stage with no budget. Using found objects, whatever junk she could scavenge, and her artistic imagination, she always came up with something that enhanced the performance and delighted the eye,” – Dr. James Fritschel ’51, who joined the Wartburg music faculty in 1959, first directing the Castle Singers and then serving as Wartburg Choir director from 1968 to 1984

In the middle of marvelous music
“It was such a thrill for me to have these superb artists admit me into the inner chambers of their keen perceptions of the music. They unfolded nuances that I could not otherwise have dreamed. It threw me back onto whatever resourcefulness I could must to affirm their artistry and use it to enlarge and enhance my original vision of what could happen. Then to have it all culminate with the performances, where I found myself in the middle of this marvelous music, was a wonderful experience for me.” – Dr. Herman Diers ’49, professor emeritus, who was involved in writing and narrating the program from 1959 to 1993

Enhancing the reputation
“We were frustrated that our sister schools were having wonderful Christmas programs and turning people away. We really took hold of Christmas at Wartburg and got it off the ground,” – Jan Striepe ’59, retired director of alumni and parent programs, describing efforts in the 1980s to take the program to a new level of excellence and recognition.

Decorating Knights Gym
“I chose colors that would work well with the gym lights and created banners and other large-scale pieces that would make a strong grouping above the performers on the gym floor. They had to be hung across the beams of Knights Gym. Fortunately, none of them fell down.” – Arthur Frick, professor emeritus of art, who came to Wartburg in 1976 and not only created banners, but was also involved in poster and program design for a number of years.

Christmas with Wartburg Today
The program includes approximately 350 student musicians and is viewed by nearly 7,000 people. Christmas with Wartburg has been featured on public television stations around the United States and in Midwest Living magazine.