It’s beginning to look a lot like ... TubaChristmas?

More than 100 tuba, euphonium and sousaphone players help celebrate the season

A wide photo of a large tuba band
Conductor Carol Jenson leads a rehearsal an hour before the 2023 MERRY TUBACHRISTMAS 35th anniversary concert at Central Presbyterian Church, an annual event originally created by Harvey Phillips.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

It’s a couple of hours before showtime on a recent Sunday and there’s a line of tuba and euphonium players queued up at the registration table inside Central Presbyterian Church in St. Paul.

Before they can start playing Christmas carols, the musicians have to register. For $10, the tuba players get a seat in the TubaChristmas ensemble and a large button featuring the image of Harvey Phillips — aka Mr. Tuba, the organizer of the first TubaChristmas in 1974. It was held on the Rockefeller Center ice skating rink in New York City.

Tuba mom/tuba supporter Laura Schiabotti co-manages the registration table and cash box. In addition to music books, organizers are also selling TubaChristmas merch. She said she’s been attending TubaChristmas since 2017, only missing one concert due to the COVID-19 cancellation in 2020. 

“I mean we’ve come every year except for the year they canceled it,” Schiabotti said. “What a bummer year.”

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A person holds up their smart phone
Enthusiastic members of the packed audience took videos of family members playing in the 2023 MERRY TUBACHRISTMAS 35th anniversary concert.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

While Schiabotti helps register folks, others who have already checked in catch up with friends. Some players — like Centennial High School student Carter Day — are fine-tuning their Christmas flair on their instruments. Carter, 16, is dressed in red-and-black flannel pajama pants, a Dr. Pepper Christmas sweater and a Santa cap. 

His tuba is decked out with a wreath, bells, garland and Merry Christmas wrapping paper.

It’s the TubaChristmas way. 

Carter says he first attended a TubaChristmas when he was seven or eight. He thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

Looking up at the large bells of a tuba choir
Tuba players seen performing from backstage at the 2023 MERRY TUBACHRISTMAS 35th anniversary concert.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

“I kind of liked how the sound vibrated through my body,” he said. “And I just kind of liked this large community coming together just to play Christmas music for the public for free.”

Now he plays for his high school’s band.

Many instrumentalists like Lucas Kerin consider the 50-year-old tradition the most wonderful event of the year.

“It’s just an energy. Unlike football games, or concert bands, where it's just for joy,” he said. “There’s no real failure or success as long as everyone’s having fun.”

A woman wraps string lights around a young man
Jackson Scharett, 14, of Minneapolis gets help from his mother Kris Scharrett stringing lites around his neck before his performance in the 2023 MERRY TUBACHRISTMAS 35th anniversary concert.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

Kerin, a senior at the University of Minnesota, ended up later being selected to conduct one song of the concert. He’s been playing the tuba for 12 years and this year he celebrates his ninth TubaChristmas.

Tuba players are a rare breed, he says.

“It takes a special kind of person to decide, ‘oh, let’s pick the heaviest, most painful instrument and that plays the least notes in the band. That's what I want to do with my free time,’” he said. “So there’s just a certain character behind all tuba players.”

Many sousaphone players with festive decorations
103 musicians showed up to perform in the 2023 MERRY TUBACHRISTMAS 35th anniversary concert.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

This year marks the 35th anniversary of TubaChristmas in the Twin Cities and the 50th nationwide. The first concert in Minnesota was performed at the Rosedale Mall in 1988. It was conducted by Carol Jensen. She was back at it on Sunday, her 35th time conducting the Twin Cities TubaChristmas. 

“I’m the conductor. I’m the boss, I get to yell at everybody,” she joked. “I have fun with the audience.”

Jensen hasn’t missed one TubaChristmas performance. Except when organizers canceled the concert in 2020. 

A woman plays a small tuba
Carol Aiecker, 88, was the most senior of the 103 musicians performing at the 2023 MERRY TUBACHRISTMAS 35th anniversary concert.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

Before COVID-19, the concerts would attract 150 players. Last year, Jensen said, that number was 94 and trending upward. This year there are 103 performers. And the 1,200 seat capacity sanctuary is nearly full.

The audience starts to arrive as the ensemble rehearses. Afterwards, when the crowd is seated in the church pews, Jensen gives them a rundown on how the concert will proceed. The tubas, sousaphones, and euphoniums will play the first verse. On the second verse, the audience will sing along.   

The sounds of “Deck the Halls,” “Hark, The Herald Angels Sing,” “Carols of the Bells,” “Jingle Bells,” and more fill the church. “Silent Night” was dedicated to Harvey Phillips.

A man sits with a tuba
W. Rayford Johnson is a retired conductor of bands at St Paul Public Schools. He has played the tuba for 61 years.
Regina Medina | MPR News

W. Rayford Johnson is a retired conductor with the St. Paul Public Schools. He started playing the tuba in sixth grade, 61 years ago. After the concert, he said he was impressed with the audience’s singing abilities.

“It’s impromptu. And it’s always interesting to hear how they sing in harmony. They know the words. They know the melodies and they sing very well,” said Johnson

Mark and Gloria Blockey have been attending TubaChristmas at Central Presbyterian for at least 10 years. And before that, at the HarMar Mall in Roseville. The couple from New Brighton said they enjoy singing with others because it’s so rare.

“A lot of it’s tradition. You know, we did that so much when we were with family when we were younger, you learn the songs,” Mark Blockey said.

A person adorns their tuba with ornaments
Kris Moe of St. Louis Park adds ornaments to his tuba before performing as one of 103 musicians at the 2023 MERRY TUBACHRISTMAS 35th anniversary concert.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

Gloria Blockey added: “In school, you sang. With family, you sang. And then that just kind of goes away. Nobody sings together anymore. So that’s why this is important.” 

She also provided a tip for anyone who hasn’t experienced TubaChristmas.

“I just encourage anybody to put it on their calendar for 2024. December 8, it’s Sunday at four o'clock,” she said. “You’ll be surprised, you’ll leave with a smile on your face.”

Performances will be held in Virginia, Rochester, Cokato and Marshall this weekend. 

A hand works the valves on a tuba
One of 103 musicians who showed up to perform, Everett Tranby of Woodbury, added lights to his B flat tuba for the 2023 MERRY TUBACHRISTMAS 35th anniversary concert.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News
This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment‘s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.