Here are some interesting facts regarding the history of the annual Christmas Vespers, which was conducted on Sunday, Dec. 8, at Memorial Chapel, according to Jeff Kenney, Culver, archives manager of the Culver Academies Museum.
The term Vespers dates back to the second century A.D., with the Latin word vespertini referring to daily evening prayers. Throughout much of the history of Christianity, Vespers continued as part of the daily cycle of prayer, especially in monastic settings, and always at eventide.
Local examples of this evening service abound during the 1930s and 1940s according to past editions of The Culver Citizen newspaper. A number of local Protestant churches frequently held “Vespers” services of one sort or another. None resemble Culver’s Yuletide tradition of today.
The April 1937, the Culver Alumnus Magazine noted under a simple heading “Vespers” that “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 interest shown in this service during the few weeks of its existence has surprised the small group who began it. Probably the reason for its success is the pleasing informality, which element has been preserved admirably by the speakers for the various occasions…The services are held in the lounge room at the Memorial Building, which at the present time can be made to assume, better than any other place, the atmosphere of the Chapel, which is so much wanted.”
Writings about the programs held in the Legion Building indicate the degree to which music gradually became an important component of the services. A separate Vesper Choir formed during this period to provide music for the services, all of which perhaps forecasts the central role music would play in the Christmas service.
The first discovered mention of Christmas Vespers as distinct from the regular Sunday Vespers series, appears in the Vedette, the student newspaper, in early December 1943: “A Christmas carol vesper service will be held in the Music and Arts Building next Sunday at 18:30, under the direction of (then-Culver band director) Col. Edward Payson ’22. 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.”
According to that story, the 1943 service was not the first. But in 1944, the Vedette reported 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 same article also showed the weekly Vespers series as distinctive from the Christmas event. Also distinctive from Christmas Vespers was the annual Christmas band concert, also under the direction of Payson.
However it evolved, Christmas Vespers became an ongoing event due to an order from Col. W.E. Gregory. As beloved as the tradition would become, Payson’s daughter, Martha Ryman, remembered the additional service wasn’t exactly welcomed by the Fine Arts faculty tasked with organizing a large-scale event combining instrumental and vocal music alongside cadet readers, all centered on Christmas themes, spoken and sung.
The first mention of Christmas Vespers puts the service in the Music and Arts Building. Likely the growing popularity of the event – even outside the confines of the cadet corps – dictated moving the service to the Rec Building. By 1947 the service included the Culver Community Chorus, a vocal group comprised of singers from various church congregations.
The 1948 Christmas Vespers included the Academies’ band and choir, the Culver Community Chorus, and the Culver High School choral group, bringing the total number of performers to 200. The 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. The first for the corps of cadets 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.
One of the highlights through the years was 1964, when the women of St. Mary’s Academy (now closed) 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.