For months, the world has adapted according to COVID-19 safety precautions, and the 64th Festival of Christmas proved no different. Rather than attending a long weekend of sold-out performances in Benson Great Hall, viewers curled up in their own homes across the world to watch the premiere on Facebook or YouTube December 4. While they missed the Christmas atmosphere on Bethel’s campus, the community was present as ever on Bethel’s social media channels—underscoring the need for hope during a challenging year.
Providing hope is exactly what Festival artistic director Merrin Guice Gill and producer Kevin Shull set out to do when they picked the theme “For God So Loved the World.” John 3:16 has inspired a number of the Festival pieces and even how they were filmed at the end of October. “We are in a space right now here where there’s a lot of upheaval,” Guice Gill says. “Whether that upheaval is caused by illness, whether that upheaval is caused by civil unrest—it’s a time of struggle. The theme is a reminder that God loves us all.”
Both to follow COVID-19 guidelines and celebrate the theme, Guice Gill divided Bethel’s choir into two groups. The first sang outside in front of Scandia Church on Bethel’s campus. They all wore white and held candles, illuminating their faces in the midst of a cold Minnesota night. This, Guice Gill says, was symbolic of the heavenly choir exalting Jesus. “There’s this good news of light coming into the darkness,” Shull says. “God’s reconciling us to Himself, but He’s reconciling us to one another as well.” The second group represented the earthly choir and wore what Guice Gill calls their “Christmas party clothing,” as they sang to celebrate Jesus’ arrival.
Although the student ensembles performed a few weeks before the actual Christmas season, they had a blast filming everything in one weekend. Shull and Guice Gill watched the students connect with each other as they danced between takes to keep warm. “Especially when we were doing some of the video recording, the students were hilarious,” Guice Gill says. “They were dancing in their white outfits, questioning what we were doing. Everybody was freezing together because we were outside. It was fun, and they’re looking forward to the unveiling.”
Bethel Choir hosted a red-carpet event for all the ensembles involved the night before Festival premiered virtually. Students took advantage of a photo opportunity with those in their “family units,” and they connected with music and theatre professors as well as President Ross Allen, who opened the show with a few words of his own. They spread out across Benson Great Hall to watch their performance together for the first time, and while things felt different from a “normal” Festival of Christmas weekend, the event was still special.
The performance’s finale was Professor of Music Jonathan Veenker’s arrangement of “Silent Night.” The last words of the performance were “Sleep in heavenly peace.” Guice Gill and Shull hope the audience—those that watched the online stream on December 4, those that will watch the recording for days to come, and even the students who saw themselves on screen—will experience heavenly peace during this season and feel encouraged by the ultimate good news.
And if the viewers had anything to say about it—they did. The live-streams registered 2,717 views, which didn’t include the number of people watching per household. People commented on the YouTube and Facebook streams over 600 times. Here’s a bit of what they had to say: