Sometime last week, as we faculty piled up our stacks of papers in anticipation of a long weekend with family, pie and of course, grading, the Luther facilities team lit the tree. The gorgeous tree that stands between the Center for Faith and Life and the Union.
For my little boys, the Christmas season begins when our advent calendar—appropriately stuffed with chocolate coins and miniature Kit Kats—appears on our bookshelf. But for me the holiday season really begins when the tree is lit.
I’ll be honest, though. Trying to teach these next two weeks is a bit of a problem. This is not unique to Luther, of course. We’re nearing the end of the semester. Students are stressed about finals. The grading is piling up. But we have the added pressure here at Luther in that more than a quarter of our students participate in the three day musical celebration that is "Christmas at Luther." Wow.
The ensembles have been practicing all semester, but this past weekend they came back early from Thanksgiving Break for an epic, six-hour-long, full rehearsal. Let's be clear. These are not all music majors. These are kids who are juggling bio lab and calculus, painting class and Paideia. They have a lot going on beyond their participation in Christmas at Luther. But the event has a way of seeping into every classroom this week.
All week this week, I'll bravely be standing in front of my Survey of Art History I class, describing the modifications architects made to church designs in response to the specifics needs of pilgrims in the Romanesque era. (It comes down to doubling the side aisles and increasing the number radiating chapels so pilgrims can visit the relics without disturbing worship services, for what it's worth). I'll gesticulate wildly in front of diagrams of Notre-Dame in Paris, reminding them that although the word "buttress" is really fun to say, they were also taken very seriously by Gothic architects who vied with one another to build the largest, the tallest, the most beautiful church as a perfect testament to the glory of God. I'll be doing this as a quarter of my students struggle to stay awake after a long night of rehearsal (a task I make far more difficult as I insist on turning down the lights so we can see the slides!). Those who manage are distracted, worrying about difficult passages of a song that they still stumble over, worrying that they'll never be able to get everything done.
When I started at Luther in 2010, I was perplexed by the all-encompassing nature of Christmas at Luther. I went to a peer school that hosted a similar Christmas concert, but it didn't affect me as a student beyond the lutefisk they served in the cafeteria on Friday night. I was a swimmer and an art major; we didn't mix much with "the choir kids." By the time late November rolled around during my first year of teaching at Luther, I knew the students well enough to know that they don't complain about work and they like being challenged, so the audible groan that the class issued when I passed out a pop quiz during "Christmas at Luther" week surprised me, and honestly had me thinking critically about what I had gotten myself into.
But then one of my juniors invited me to the Friday night performance and I sat with 1,600 others in the Center for Faith and Life. As the light dimmed and the orchestra began to play, choir members slowly walked into the hall and I started to pick out familiar faces. Two of my first-year students stood among the women in Aurora. Another, who I knew was an English and art double major, sat in the orchestra. Three more stood with Cathedral Choir; another four in Collegiate Choir.
Seeing all these students gathered together, creating something together so beautiful, gave me the chills. There was a sense of professionalism that I hadn't expected. Afterwards in the packed CFL lobby, a few of my students found me, exhausted faces transformed by the joy of performance. They thanked me for coming and proudly introduced their parents to me. At that point I started to understand what the big deal was. Now when I'm faced with those tired faces glancing blearily up at me in the classroom, I step up the energy and try to support them during these next busy days.
I'm not caving in to the pressures of their busy extracurricular lives, but rather I understand now that they are actively developing some of those "soft" skills that they so desperately need in the workforce—dedication, collaboration, perseverance, enthusiasm and yes—time management. Like course content, mastery of these skills takes time and effort, and it can be exhausting.
We faculty sometimes grumble about how over-scheduled our students are, beyond those who hang out in Jenson-Noble. From the cross-country runners, who just returned from Nationals, to the students who made the fall production of "Cabaret" a rousing success, to those students who worked so hard on SAC committees to bring Macklemore to Luther's stage, our students get it done and learn important transferable skills in the process.
There is one additional lesson I took from my first experience with Christmas at Luther that is harder to quantify. My students reminded me that we all need to find time for those things we love, and that this cultivation of passion is something that makes life joyous and worth living.
Current student, Sam Jones '14, just blogged about getting caught up in the energy of "Christmas at Luther." He writes that in that moment, "everything is gone except this one perfect chord, and the orchestra is soaring and the conductor is flying, and there are sparkles in your eyes and suddenly you're completely overcome and you're crying as you look out into the black sea of audience and orchestra in front of you. I don't care in that moment about my homework or my future or any of my other problems. All that matters is the beauty of the music and the people around me creating it and swimming in it." http://www.luther.edu/music/know-the-score/?story_id=514166
That's a passion that I wish we saw more often in our world today.
I'm glad the tree is lit and I'm glad the parade of Norwegian sweaters is on its way. Each is a unique reminder of this great place where we've all found ourselves. I think I'll refrain from giving a pop quiz this week, but Sam, the homework picks back up next week, I promise.
Kate Elliott is an assistant professor of art history at Luther College. She teaches courses from ancient, medieval and renaissance art to art of the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as a Paideia 450 course in the Paideia program. She also serves as the curator of the Luther College Fine Arts Collection.