Like the holiday itself, Christmas hymns and songs of praise resonate far beyond the walls of the Christian church.

Whatever your faith, or not, there’s a good chance you recognize the tunes, if not the words.

Handel’s “Messiah.” Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio.” The works of Vaughan Williams.

Where the program goes from there is a story of how tradition and the classical sounds that help define it can evolve into a message that transcends the holiday season, said Jim DeJarnette, the long-time minister of worship and music at First Presbyterian Church in Colorado Springs.

“One of the principal values of First Pres is being light and life for the city, and trying to reach out in very meaningful ways into the life of our city,” he said.

DeJarnette set out to accomplish nothing less than that almost 40 years ago, assembling the forces to put on a Christmas concert that would “reach out far beyond our congregation and into the lives of our Colorado Springs community,” he said.

That performance quickly outgrew its original stage at the church and went on to become an annual holiday tour de force that routinely plays to sell-out crowds at the Pikes Peak Center.

For him, Christmas joy is where it began, in spirit, and “Christmas Joy” is where it will come to an end. DeJarnette announced his retirement early this year and will officially pass the baton to his successor, Jamal Sarikoki, during Sunday’s performances.

“We’re so excited to have Jamal here, and I‘m personally thrilled to see we have an artist of his magnitude and great, great heart for the Lord,” DeJarnette said. “I just could not be more pleased at this point … and so excited about all that is ahead for us.”

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Jamal Sarikoki, left, will replace Jim DeJarnette, the minister of worship and music, at First Presbyterian Church in Colorado Springs. DeJarnette will retire after the Christmas Joy performance Sunday at the Pikes Peak Center after 40 years with the church. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

Worship music doesn’t have to be a static thing, but congregations — and audiences — do have expectations. DeJarnette said he’s always seen part of his role as expanding that palette of expectations.

“When I first arrived at First Pres, it was a program that looked primarily like a big choir, big organ and occasional brass. We began back in those years by doing performances of “Messiah” and excerpts from the major Christmas works,” said DeJarnette. From there, they began to wade into other musical “expressions,” such as arrangements by the band Mannheim Steamroller.

“We slowly began to get more eclectic in our offerings,” DeJarnette said.

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Jim DeJarnette, the minister of worship and music, leads the rehearsal for Christmas Joy Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021, at First Presbyterian Church in Colorado Springs. DeJarnette will retire after the Christmas Joy performance Sunday at the Pikes Peak Center after 40 years with the church. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

More eclectic, and much, much bigger.

Today, Christmas Joy is a production so big and multipronged it almost has to be seen to be explained.

In addition to the First Pres Sanctuary Choir, there’s a full orchestra, 17-piece big band, the Colorado Springs Children’s Chorale and the Pikes Peak Ringers professional hand-bell ensemble, Celtic Mountain Band, Celtic Steps Dancers, and an array of featured soloists.

“It all just became a very far-reaching, broad musical expression of Christmas through all of these different partnerships. And we just cherish all of them,” DeJarnette said. “It’s been the joy of my life.”

DeJarnette’s successor, Sarikoki, 30, said he never envisioned moving to Colorado Springs. But the passion and dedication of First Pres’ outgoing musical leader — and the church that made it all happen — convinced him otherwise.

The accomplished vocalist, who had led congregations in New York and Florida, and was associate conductor of one of the largest combined choruses in the Sunshine State, said he and his wife “weren’t looking for a new place to go.”

But then they found out their first child was on the way, and plans changed.

“We were sort of deciding whether or not we were going to move to Philadelphia for me to go to seminary full-time or stay in Florida,” Sarikoki said. “One thing we were longing for was a younger community. There was a younger community in Sarasota, but not a large younger Christian community. That’s what we were longing for and praying for.”

When his voice teacher in Florida, a former resident of the Springs, sent Sarikoki’s name in to the search committee at First Pres, it felt like forces more powerful were at work.

“Next thing I knew, I was packing my house preparing to move to Colorado Springs. I had never been to the state of Colorado before,” he said.

Two weeks into his new position at First Pres, he is featured vocalist at the “Christmas Joy” concert, performing a song, “Our Family Was Born on Christmas Night,” written especially for him by his predecessor.

It’s a perfect example of how Christmas musical traditions in Colorado Springs, and the concept of a family in faith, aren’t a static thing either.

“My goal here at First Pres, both in the community and church is always first and foremost to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, but one of the things that’s kind of important to me as a classical artist but (also) as an African American classical artist is to showcase the fact that there are so many different cultures represented in classical music,” Sarikoki said.

“One of the exciting things about First Pres is they seem to work their hardest at letting you be the artist that you want to be. I felt that this is a place where I’ll actually be able to learn but also to maximize my potential as an artist.”

And share all that with an audience that’s tuned in, on Christmas and every Sunday.

Reporter

Stephanie Earls is a news reporter and columnist at The Gazette. Before moving to Colorado Springs in 2012, she worked for newspapers in upstate NY, WA, OR and at her hometown weekly in Berkeley Springs, WV, where she got her start in journalism.

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