When Culver students, faculty, staff, alumni, and members of the community gather for the Christmas Vespers at the Memorial Chapel at 5:30 p.m., Sunday (Dec. 11), they will be participating in a tradition that gradually evolved into the service it is today.
Its roots can be traced back to a series of more informal services conducted on Sunday afternoons that hold little resemblance to today’s ceremony.
The term “Vespers” is first mentioned in the April 1937 Culver Alumnus magazine. The article noted “The last few weeks have seen the inauguration of an informal devotional service on Sunday afternoons in the Memorial Building. The audience is usually composed of a few cadets and faculty members who drop in for a few minutes of music, sometimes supplied by cadets, sometimes by a faculty quartet, and a short, unpretentious talk by a member of the faculty or by some visitor of the school.”
The words “Christmas Vespers” doesn’t appear until early December 1943. A Vedette article shows it is distinct from the regular Sunday series. “A Christmas carol vesper service will be held in the Music and Art Building next Sunday at 1830, under the direction of (then-Culver band director) Col. Payson. This program of instrumental music and group singing on the Sunday before the beginning of the Christmas holidays is becoming established as a cherished tradition at Culver.” (emphasis added)
According to that story, the 1943 service was not the first and a 1944 Vedette story reports that “this traditional gathering of the corps on the last Sunday evening before the holidays to sing Christmas carols has become one of the most popular features of the winter schedule.” The article adds the weekly Vespers series is distinctive from the Christmas event, as is the annual Christmas band concert under the direction of Col. Edward Payson `22.
Col. Payson’s daughter, Martha Ryman, recalls Christmas Vespers officially became an ongoing event following an order from Col. W.E. Gregory, Culver’s superintendent at the time. First conducted in the Music and Arts Building, Christmas Vespers moved to the Rec Building as the audience and the number of performers grew. The 1947 service included the Culver Community Chorus, a vocal group comprised of singers from various church congregations.
The 1948 service included the CMA band and choir, the Culver Community Chorus, and the Culver High School choral group, bringing the total number of performers to 200. The Culver Citizen remarked that an enthusiastic audience was so large it filled the “massive” recreation building for what was hoped would become an annual tradition.
The success of the combined event dictated a temporary shift in approach to Christmas Vespers. In 1951, the still-new Memorial Chapel (dedicated in October) was home to two versions of Christmas Vespers, and has been every year since. The first for the cadets, faculty, and staff at 6:30 p.m. on Dec. 16, and the second for the general public at 8 p.m. the same evening. Once again, several local church choirs and the high school choir joined Culver’s performers, raising the number to 200-plus singers and musicians.
In 1964 the women of St. Mary’s Academy (now St. Mary’s College) in South Bend joined in for a recording of “an unusual vesper service to herald the Christmas season,” according to the Vedette. The result was “Carols of Christmas,” which was released in 1965 by Delta Records (available in the “Christmas” collection of Culver’s Digital Vault). Then, on Christmas Day, South Bend TV stations WSBT and WNDU aired portions of the official Christmas Vespers service at Culver, which saw the two schools’ choirs joining forces again.
(In addition to the “Carols of Christmas” recording, Digital Vault also has a collection of Christmas cards, video, and audio available. The entire 1993 Culver Christmas Vespers video is also available.)