Festival of Lessons and Carols is switching it up this year


by Morgan Frideres, Assistant Copy Editor

INDIANOLA, Iowa — Simpson’s Festival of Lessons and Carols is a traditional service, but that doesn’t mean it’s the same every year. This year brings a new Saturday service, celebrations for the 50th anniversary of Smith Chapel and the Iowa Public Radio coming to record a performance of Lessons and Carols.

The major change this year is a switch to a Saturday evening service on Dec. 9 at 7:30 p.m., along with a Sunday service on Dec. 10 at 2 p.m., rather than two Sunday services.

Replacing a Sunday time with a Saturday service gives a new opportunity for audience members and a break for the performers.

Senior Cortez Daniel, part of the chamber choir, is excited about the change.

“It just gives you a feeling that you can go home and get refreshed before the second performance,” Daniel said.

The chapel is also holding a dinner before the Saturday service, which is part of the reason for the switch, according to Tim McMillin, professor and director of choral activities. The dinner beforehand is available for anyone, including students. Those interested have to make a reservation online or through the chapel office.

Chaplain Mara Bailey said the dinner is part of trying something new in commemoration of the 50th anniversary, along with raising money for a new program called the Simpson Youth Academy. The cost of attending the meal is $40, but both days of the service are free.

The chapel is trying something else new this year by having the audience reserve tickets online for the services. Although the tickets are free, Bailey said it’s to prevent people from getting mixed up on the new times and for churches and other organizations who bring large groups of people.

Different aspects of the tradition are changing, but the heart of the tradition stays the same.

McMillin did his undergraduate work at Simpson in the 1990s and participated in Lessons and Carols for four years himself. McMillin has been teaching at Simpson since 2004 and has conducted the service every year, not including his yearlong leave of absence.

“It’s a wonderful tradition that feels like home every year when it happens,” McMillin said.

For freshman Ellie Brazeal, this is her first year experiencing the service. Her love of Christmas has her excited to participate.

“They have the Christmas tree and everything set up in Smith,” Brazeal said. “I was so happy, I almost cried.”

Brazeal said a big difference for her will be having a joint concert with all four choirs. She sings in the college choir and the madrigal choir, and she said there haven’t been many joint concerts yet other than the honor choir held on Oct. 12.

The scripture narration and audience participation also help make the service unique.

“Normally, a choral concert, or instrumental concert, is a series of music followed by another piece of music, and it takes the listener on a journey,” McMillin said. “It’s the scripture narration between and among all of that music that certainly is unique.”

The scripture passages stay the same every year, but the music surrounding the scripture changes. McMillin said it’s an opportunity each year to experience new music along with wonderful old standards.

Dennis Hendrickson and Zach Rohlwing, who direct the women’s chorale and the madrigal singers, help determine some of the titles worked into the service based upon what they want to program with their ensembles.

McMillin said this year will include a selection from Handel’s “Messiah” from the 18th century, followed by a spiritual written in the last three years by a contemporary composer. He said the contrast will be interesting from a performer’s perspective and engaging for the audience.

Last year, they added a string and wind ensemble to the performance for even more rejoicing and energy, according to McMillin.

“I think the fun part of it is to try and weave an experience for the people who come to be comforted, who come to be inspired, who come just to reflect upon the season and then hopefully, for the performers as well,” McMillin said.

A lot is going on behind the scenes, McMillin said, with the music preparation, coordinating readers and decorating Smith Chapel. This work couldn’t be done without the chapel and maintenance people who help set up the decorations.

Bailey arranged special readers for scripture passages this year. She usually invites faculty and staff to read, but this year she invited past chaplains of Simpson to read some passages as a way to honor them and help them be part of the 50th anniversary celebration.

Something else special this year is the broadcasting of Lessons and Carols on Iowa Public Radio. A Simpson alumnus who has connections with IPR reached out asking if they would like to record one of the performances, so an employee of IPR will be at the Saturday evening service to record the performance. However, the date it will be broadcasted is currently unknown, according to Bailey.

“It’s always really fun to put on the music for people and to have so many people come and listen,” Daniel said. “I feel like it’s a bigger deal because the whole community comes to support, and everyone is celebrating and trying to get into the spirit of the season.”