Besides the large public Christmas concerts at Temple Square, the Church also offers a less spectacular, pre-recorded one-hour Christmas concert for online view, worldwide. For 2022 the Church produced “The Promise of Christmas”. Bravo! I don’t know if they employ a Diversity Consultant, but they certainly hit the mark. Opening: immediate focus on two singing non-Caucasian girls, next broadening to the full One Voice Children’s Choir. The kids all casually dressed, naturally moving on stage. Black presenter Stephen Jones, in his warm, easygoing style, sets the tone for an intimate musical journey with church members from around the world. The program features genuine singing from Brazil, the Philippines, South Africa, and from a string of joyful groups in the Africa West Area, flashing a modern Africa in urban settings, future-oriented, and thus avoiding the folklorization of aboriginal villages. Heart-warming are the cozy strings of the “Simply Three”, accompanied by a black pianist. A few other groups bring simple, pleasant music for all audiences. All casually dressed: all should feel included.
Personally, I would have liked to see more contributions from other countries instead of the noisy Utah Pipe Band, the bubbly BYU Folk Dancers, or the impeccable BYU Vocal Point, but others certainly enjoy those US contributions.
At the center of this Salt Lake-based concert is the adorable telling of the nativity story, with very simple, quietly animated drawings in black and white—suitable for all cultures and age groups. No pretention whatsoever. No stereotyped filmed “historical” scenes from Jesus’ life. Next follow a range of children, from all races, candidly uttering a few words about Jesus. The obligatory church message comes not from a male authority, but from Susan Porter, Primary General President. Though her “general-conference-affected-speech & smiles” contrasts with Stephen Jones’ natural tone-setting, her message is genuine —“and she wears no jewelry,” my daughter remarked (she had first seen the European concert, see below).
Then the last part: a moving contribution by Riverside California missionaries in sign language, ending within the intimacy of a family communicating in sign language. This soft finale confirmed the whole thread: inclusiveness for all. End. No list of closing credits with names, which would only distract from the final scene. All in all, a concert that deserves an A for its diversity and simplicity (perhaps an A minus for too much visual emphasis on wrapped gift boxes as (commercial) tokens of Christmas—I had to find something to critique).
In 2021 the Area leaders of “the Church in Europe” already monitored a one-hour Christmas concert, “Witnesses of Christmas,” for online viewing, recorded in the Visitors’ Center of the Rome Temple, with the American Jenny Oaks Baker and Family Four, and President Dallin H. Oaks’ prominent presence at the end. Overall, it was well received.
For 2022, the Area leaders went for a much more intricate pre-recorded program with musical talents from within Europe, under the title “Witnesses of Christ / Symbols of Christ.” According to a UK Church News article, it turned into a “Christmas masterpiece.” Indeed, we witness the performance of some remarkable virtuosi in an elaborate montage directed by Brian Cordray, an established film producer and Publishing Services Manager for the Church in Europe. The concert was well advertised in advance: repeatedly announced in all church meetings in Europe, with even a “commercial” trailer as appetizer. No doubt all those who contributed to the making did so with enthusiasm and dedication. And I respect the feelings of all those who really like this concert.
So, how do I dare write a critical review about this sublime concert? — a concert with two European Area authorities as executive producers, twelve award-winning musicians, and a highly professional presentation in two historic locations—the narrator in the Charles Dickens Museum in London and the musicians on the stage of the ancient Roman Theater in Mérida, Spain. Critique of such an extremely well-prepared and elaborately staged event must be unbecoming and ungrateful. Still, I know I am not the only one who watched this virtual concert, feeling more confused than uplifted. After hearing from more people and after revisiting the online concert several times, the confusion led to analysis. The comparison with the parallel one-hour online Salt Lake concert was decisive: I felt I had to write a review, in case leaders in the Europe Area are planning next year’s concert.
According to the UK news release detailing “the making” of this concert, the starting point was that “the concert should feel distinctly European”. What does that mean? “Not-American”? What kind of images does “distinctly European” conjure up? And distinctive from what? Distinctive because all the performers are white Europeans? Indeed, the organizers “wanted to recruit an all-European cast.”
However, for several decades Europe has been moving towards a multicultural society, with millions of immigrants, some now third and fourth generation. More and more public figures are of mixed origin. In every country strenuous and ongoing efforts are being made to recognize this diversity and foster inclusiveness. This development is particularly strong in LDS congregations in Europe, with about half of the converts of the past decades being originally from outside Europe, a substantial portion coming from Sub-Saharan Africa. Any ward in Europe counts dozens of non-white members. It should have been a top priority for the concert producers to include musicians and voices from these groups.
Next, Christmas is foremost also a feast for and by children. The Salt Lake concert producers understood that well. It starts and ends with children. The nativity story is told at children’s level. The center piece turns around children. But for the European concert, the organizers were clearly focused on finding top professional performers. As if our dedicated Primary and YM-YW workers could not have easily signaled talented children or formed local choirs, clumsy or not, for local recordings. With lots of diversity and a display of warm inclusiveness.
Then the two historic locations. For this “European” Christmas concert, someone—probably from the UK?—brought up the idea to use the interior of the Charles Dickens Museum as the starting point and as repeated landmarks during the whole concert. The narrator, Savannah Stevenson, speaks from there, dressed up as a Victorian-era lady in a Victorian-era dining room with a richly-set table with a large turkey in the middle. Is this old “British Cozy Style” the best way to make the rest of the very diverse European audience feel included? Compare with how the Salt Lake concert starts and includes the world. Moreover, from the outset of the European concert, the narration assumes that the non-Anglo audience is well familiar with Dickens and the story of Ebenezer Scrooge—a rather colonial assumption. Without that knowledge, the flashes to nineteenth-century drawings from the Scrooge story and to its present-day Disney-type animation are befuddling to many.
The Victorian setting next serves as the starting point for each of the “symbols of Christ”—stars, candles, Christmas trees, holly, candy canes, bells, and stockings—which contributed to the name of the concert. Stars and candles can easily be tied to Jesus, but for the other items it becomes forced. A cultural anthropologist will no doubt remark how much media and commerce have been imposing some of these traditions upon European countries and elsewhere in the world. The presentation assumes the universal normality of all these items, even holly, candy canes, and stockings.
For the concert itself, the setting is the stage of the ancient Roman theatre in Mérida, Spain, providing an outsized backdrop of two levels of marble columns and sculptures—intended to suggest the Roman-era of Jesus’ time. Impressive, but incongruent with Bethlehem’s humble story. (And the backdrop itself is actually of the 4th century CE). Quite an ambition to reserve that location and to record the concert there. We learn from the news release that it was actually a lesser choice—“many of the more well-known Italian sites were unfortunately cost prohibitive”—meaning some of these were at first considered. The Colosseum? The Sistine chapel?
At Mérida, the filming was done at night, with backlights illuminating the walls and columns alternatively in blue, green, yellow, and purple, or combinations. Added towards the center of the stage were a huge, decorated Christmas tree, a massive star, and large led-lighted balls. The solo and duo performers appear formally dressed, with the women in gala or opera attire, some with conspicuous jewelry. That already incongruent scenery is interspersed with excerpts from Church-films of Jesus’ humble life, repeated returns to Charles Dickens’ interior, and Scrooge animation—all of this accumulating the frequent heaps asked from the viewer. Honestly, as some members told me, the stand of any simple LDS chapel, with some restrained Christmas decoration, would have been sufficient for the whole concert—and more appropriate.
At the end, the two presidents of Europe Area’s (Europe North and Europe Central) deliver the closing messages, in contrast to the Salt Lake concert that eschewed this final stamp of male authority. Also, while the Salt Lake concert does not spend a single second on an introduction or end credits, the European concert begins with an enhanced presentation of the “Performers in order of appearance” (with an irritating kind of Celtic background music) and ends with a long list of credits, scrolling some 150 names, including scores of technicians and operators, translators, makeup artists, hair dressers, caterers, drivers … Plus references to music studios, dubbing services … The whole is indeed available in 31 languages. Hint: limit the narration to the bare minimum (as in the Salt Lake concert) and translation is hardly needed.
And that brings us to the cost of this concert. Even if some of those involved served without compensation, are the obviously high costs of this endeavor justified? Directly or indirectly covered by tithing? I heard bitter remarks of members who, after having viewed the concert, pointed to dire needs in their wards and for which budget requests have been refused by higher-ups. In that sense, this concert was not a Christmas gift to the members.
P.S. During Elder Massimo De Feo’s message at the end, a nativity painting by the school of Domenico Ghirlandaio (in the Basilica di San Lorenzo in Florence) is briefly shown (minute 47:40). But some deranged prudery found it necessary to blur the infant Jesus’ sex. Vandalization of art. Restoration required the image at the beginning of this review.