Christmas with Wartburg - 75 years

By Linda Moeller ’66

Late 1940s Christmas with Wartburg
Late 1940s Christmas with Wartburg

After weathering the most challenging year in its history, Christmas with Wartburg celebrates its 75th anniversary with live concerts in Waverly and West Des Moines, Dec. 3-5, 2021.

In 2020, restrictions created by a global pandemic made it impossible to stage the college’s 74th consecutive Advent-Christmas concert in the traditional mode. Yet the program continued, brightening a truly bleak midwinter with a video production that brought joy and hope to individuals and communities sequestered by COVID-19.

As audiences gather in person for the 2021 anniversary concert, we reflect on the generations of students, directors, and administrators who have staged this musical celebration of Christ’s incarnation as a gift to our local communities and the state of Iowa.

Beginning as a simple Christmas concert in 1947, Christmas with Wartburg mirrors the growth of the college and the expansion of the campus. For the first two years, it was staged at the Waverly High School auditorium because Wartburg had no facility suitable for large audiences. In 1949, the program moved to the newly built Knights Gymnasium, which was equipped with a large stage at one end of the gym floor. In 1961, the Chapel-Auditorium, later named Neumann Auditorium, created a new venue with more comfortable seats and better acoustics. The program moved back to Knights Gym in 1967 and 1968 and from 1976 to 1982, but it has remained in Neumann ever since.

Wartburg enrolled 622 students in 1947, and the Christmas concert featured the Wartburg Choir and the Chapel Choir. Eventually, the program expanded to include the Concert Band and Castle Singers. In 1952, the newly formed Wartburg Community Symphony Orchestra made its first appearance as part of Christmas with Wartburg.

Iowa Public Television has aired several Christmas with Wartburg productions and Midwest Living magazine featured the program in its December 1994 issue.

Today, with approximately 450 students involved in campus music organizations, Christmas with Wartburg features five choral groups (Wartburg Choir, Castle Singers, Ritterchor, St. Elizabeth Chorale, and Kantorei) and three instrumental groups (Wartburg Wind Ensemble, Kammerstreicher chamber orchestra, and Handbell Choir). It takes six charter buses plus equipment trucks to take the show to West Des Moines.

The name, Christmas with Wartburg, first appeared on the 1951 program and by 1953, attendance had reached 1,500. Over the next40 years, attendance grew to 6,400 and theschedule included a total of four shows, two inWaverly and two at off-campus venues.

The 1995 program included a commissioned work by Ben Allaway as a tribute to Dr. Robert E. Lee, who retired in the spring of 1995 after 37 years as director of the Wartburg College Concert Band.

Early 1990s - Christmas with Wartburg at Nazareth Lutheran
Early 1990s - Christmas with Wartburg at Nazareth Lutheran

The off-campus programs were part of Wartburg’s expanding efforts to gain broader name recognition throughout the state. The first off-campus venue was West High School Auditorium in Waterloo from 1979 to1981. Nazareth Lutheran Church in Cedar Falls hosted the program from 1982 until 2008. A Des Moines performance was added in 1986 at Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ. When that space became too small, Christmas with Wartburg moved to the Civic Center of Greater Des Moines from 1989 to 2008.

During Wartburg’s Sesquicentennial observance in 2001-02, the college added a fifth venue at the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids. Students performed on campus Thursday, in Cedar Falls Friday, in Cedar Rapids Saturday, on campus Sunday, and in Des Moines the following Saturday.

In 2009, Dr. Darrel Colson became the new president of Wartburg College, and Dr. Lee Nelson joined the music department as director of choral activities and artistic director of Christmas with Wartburg. They re-arranged the schedule, replacing the Cedar Falls performance with a third concert on campus and moving the Des Moines performance to Lutheran Church of Hope in West Des Moines. Students now travel to West Des Moines on Friday, perform an afternoon and evening concert in Neumann Auditoriumon Saturday, and present a final concert in Neumann Auditorium on Sunday afternoon.

Throughout its history, Christmas with Wartburg has combined music, narration, and scenic effects to create a cohesive theme. The list of narrators has included Wartburg presidents, beloved professors, accomplished staff members, and talented alumni.

Dr. Herman Diers, professor of religion, had the longest tenure as a scriptwriter and narrator. When he retired in the spring of 1993, Campus Pastor Larry Trachte ’66 filled in for that December’s program. The Rev. Philip Froiland, credited with expanding the outreach of Christmas with Wartburg during his years as director of church relations, wrote the narration from 1994 to 1999. Kathryn Koob ’60, an alumna and adjunct professor at Wartburg after retiring from the U.S. Foreign Service, scripted the program from 2002 to 2008. Dr. Lee Nelson has written the program narrative since 2009.

Opera star and Iowa native Simon Estes served as a distinguished professor and artist-in-residence at Wartburg from 2002 to 2016. He narrated Christmas with Wartburg in 2002 and made regular appearances as a soloist and with the Wartburg Choir. The 2003 program included a spiritual commissioned and written for Estes and the choir by composer Ben Allaway.

Professor Helen Wright created the set design and program art from the program’s inception to her retirement in 1968. Professor Arthur Frick, who joined the faculty in 1976, created banners and large-scale pieces that added visual interest above the performance area in Knights Gymnasium.

For many years, stretching from the 1980s to the early 2000s, a large Christmas tree was the only ornament on the Neumann Auditorium stage, and the tree lights changed colors as the program progressed. To celebrate the 60th anniversary of Christmas with Wartburg in 2007, the college commissioned artist Janiece Bergland, of Floyd, Iowa, to create a hand-painted backdrop that was used for three years. She created a second backdrop for the 2010 program, which celebrated Wartburg’s 75th consecutive year in Waverly.

Over the past decade, Christmas with Wartburg has performed a variety of compositions and arrangements by Joshua Evanovich ’07. The 2010 program premiered his arrangements of The Lord is My Shepherd and O Holy Night, featuring Simon Estes, a youth choir, mass choir, and wind ensemble.

2015 Christmas with Wartburg
2015 Christmas with Wartburg

In 2011, mural designer and illustrator Chris Knudson ’01 began creating a yearly mural that reflects the program theme, accommodates a variety of special lighting effects, and provides graphic elements for programs, posters, and other ancillary materials.

Two organists also have been integral to Christmas with Wartburg productions. Dr. Warren Schmidt spent 40 years performing in the program, beginning in 1950. Dr. Karen Black, who joined the faculty in 1993, also is involved in the production as a performer as well as a director, arranger, and composer.

For 75 years Christmas with Wartburg has been an important expression and celebration of faith through music. This rich tradition has been the kickoff for the Advent and Christmas seasons for countless Wartburg alumni and friends and their families.

Dr. Jim ’51and Barbara ’52 Fritschel

Ro Foege ’60

Dr. Paul Torkelson ’76, Retired Director of Choral Activities

Julie Drewes ’90

Alan Feirer ’91

Sarah Bouska ’02

Caitlin ’17 and Cory Brannaman ’18

Dr. Lee Nelson, Director of Choral Activities, Christmas with Wartburg Artistic Director

Dr. Craig Hancock, Retired Wind Ensemble Director

Dr. Nicki Bakko Toliver, Assistant Director of Choral Activities, St. Elizabeth Chorale and Castle Singers Conductor

Dr. Karen Black, Organist and Kantorei Director

Program Themes and Concert Programs

Click on a link below to view the concert program. If you have one of the years with missing programs and would be willing to share with the Wartburg Archives, please email