On a certain brisk Tuesday evening late in the fall semester, students would usually gather on the Varsity Terrace, dressed in their “ugliest” of Christmas sweaters and warmest of jackets for the annual Christmas Lights Celebration.
Before enjoying time away from classes for Thanksgiving, the Pensacola Christian College student body got to enjoy something special during the final chapel service. Dr. Troy Shoemaker, president of the College, surprised students when he announced that the virtual concert would be posted on December 1. However, he couldn’t stop there. “Have you ever had a Christmas gift you were so excited to give that you couldn’t wait? Well, that’s been me,” he said. “We recorded a special Christmas Lights Celebration that I was going to send home with you later. But it is so awesome, I didn’t want to wait.”
While freshman Rachael Stearns (WI) hadn’t attended a Christmas Lights Celebration concert before, she appreciated experiencing the event virtually as part of the special chapel service. “I could tell that it was well-planned for, and I appreciated the energy and excitement that I saw being poured into the program!” she said. “My favorite song was ‘Carol of the Bells’ using the clock tower! The arrangement was so beautiful, and I thought it was so neat that the violinist played from inside the clock! It will be neat to show my family and friends back home what the campus looks like all lit up. I will enjoy taking a piece of college life back home with me so that people can see some of my experiences as a PCC student.”
Reimagining this special event involved a small army of dedicated people from several collaborating departments. With planning for Christmas Lights Celebration beginning very early in the year, several ideas already in the works were able to be rehashed for the virtual concert. Using “Light” as its central theme, the video focused on the warm feelings surrounding Christmas time and exalted Jesus Christ as God’s gift to the world. In the end, it featured six sets that spanned PCC’s facilities, nine songs, twenty-four Christmas trees, seventy-five students, and took eighteen separate departments to put it all together!
“We took our planned songs and considered which ones might work best for the traditional Christmas Lights Concert set and which ones would work well for special video presentations. A few changes were made, and then PCC Productions began the creative process of forming a storyline and set for each song,” said project coordinator Susan Ward, who oversaw the virtual Christmas Lights Celebration. “We have had an awesome time preparing for this, and the students have put in so many hours to make it a success.”
When planning for the video began, assistant production coordinator Liz Thomason began the deep dive into webpages, articles, and cinema lingo for how to transform this concert into a completely new format. Equipped with an easy-to-carry binder as her storyboard, Thomason bridged the gap between each department and the sets, ensuring everything was ready for each section of the concert. “Each song has its own personality, so when we sat down to brainstorm artistic vision for each song, we tried to find connections between the music and campus,” she said. “We were encouraged to feature both familiar and unique campus locations in the videos. With a list of songs and a stack of ideas, we set to work shuffling around the puzzle pieces until they made a complete picture.”
“This is the second time we’ve had the opportunity to produce a music video,” said Ruth Lunsford, Video Media supervisor. “The first time [in 2017], we produced ‘Mary, Did You Know?’ featuring One Accord. The experience gained from that video helped us to prepare for these. This opportunity has stretched us creatively. The video editors, Tomas Moreno, Caleb Hagewood, and Nathaniel Bowman, have done an outstanding job of producing music videos that showcase PCC’s musical talent and its heart.”
While he missed the excitement of an in-person performance, Thomas Molina-Morillo (Sr., CA) enjoyed working behind the scenes on the wintry sets and singing jovial songs with his fellow students. “Practices were really fun! It was awesome getting to work on Christmas music knowing that we were still going to perform it for the student body! With three different groups, it was incredible to see the hearts of the directors,” he said. “I was part of three different songs, and my favorite one to work on was One Accord’s ‘Mary, Did You Know?’ because I got to do it with two of my best friends.”
After keeping the virtual Christmas Lights production a secret for so long, students like Sara Grace Thurman (So., AL) were looking forward to sharing the video with their families at home. Last year, her parents drove five hours from their home to watch her perform in her first Christmas Lights Celebration. “I’m so excited for my parents to see it! Although we aren’t able to perform in person this year, we will all watch it together in my living room!” said Sara Grace. “Last year, my niece was enamored with the lights, and I know she will be super amazed this year as well!”
When the Christmas Lights Celebration was shared on social media, commenters quickly began sharing their gratitude for those who made the special video possible. Others began tagging old friends and reminiscing about Christmas Lights past—Christmas tree cakes included!
“Christmas Lights was always a highlight of my year. . . . 20 years ago we had to camp out on blankets for hours to get a good seat. So thankful for the technology and hard work that made it possible to enjoy it again (from a much more comfortable chair)!”
“Fantastic. Excited to share this with my kids and family. Merry Christmas from Seattle.”
“Beautiful, honoring, and touching. Thank you! But, I hope you don’t have a white Christmas down there in Florida! Come up north for that!”
While friends and family of PCC didn’t experience the concert outdoors with apple cider in hand this year, the virtual experience made it feel special in a new way. “Music is a powerful balm when life gets heavy, and I hope the love and care going into this virtual event will be felt by those who watch,” said Jonathan McIntyre, the performing arts faculty member who directed and arranged several songs in the concert. “I especially like that this will be rewatchable and shareable. We’ve seen a remarkable resilience of traditions this year, even as many of them move to virtual venues, and I hope that this program will allow students and families to still connect with the tradition of enjoying Christmas music together and enrich their celebrations this season.”