For the first time in almost 100 years, one of the region's most coveted concert tickets now carries a price tag.

The St. Olaf Christmas Fest, dating to 1912, will charge $30 for some tickets for this year's performances, plus a $7 processing fee.

The shift has prompted an opposition Facebook page, Keep Christmas Festival Free. Alumni who have posted are irked at paying for what some consider a worship service, or at least a reliable tradition. Current students appear to defend the change, suggesting that alums accept financial realities. "This is not a money grab, so please stop treating it like one," one student posted.

The private liberal arts college in Northfield defended its decision, saying it's "simply a financial reality" and that it's among the last Lutheran colleges in the country to charge admission for its Christmas programming.

"Christmas Fest has always been subsidized by the annual operating budget of the college and, while a number of attendees have been generous [with donations], those gifts have fallen way short of the amount required to put on the festival," said Steve Blodgett, director of marketing and communications.

The festival costs about $150,000 a year, he said, with additional costs every four years when the concert is recorded for broadcast on public television.

For each of this year's four concerts, Dec. 2-5, 2,912 tickets are available by allocation or request, which works out to 11,648 total attendees, Blodgett said. The supply of tickets is regularly exhausted by students, faculty and alumni before the general public can even think of requesting any, he said.

The Facebook page was created by "Bernt Julius Muus," the Norwegian-American Lutheran minister who helped found St. Olaf College. Reached via e-mail, "Muus" said that he felt compelled to remain anonymous. But from his posts as "Muus," his protest is rooted in the belief that Christmas Fest, as it's known, is not a concert, but a worship service.

"Christmas Fest is unique in that it is a worship service," said Elizabeth Drotning Hartwell, a 1999 graduate, via e-mail. "The decision to charge admission -- while understandable in light of operation costs -- changes this from a worship service to just another commercialized event. I am bitterly disappointed over this shift, which I think has deep theological implications for St. Olaf's identity as a college of the church."

Some members of the Facebook page said it's not the charge they object to as much as the administration's justification.

Ben Refling, a 2009 graduate, posted: "We are talking about an Administration that has literally used Christmas Fest tickets as a weapon against its political enemies."

He referred to how college president David Anderson in 2008 denied ticket requests by members of the SaveWCAL board, which said that the college improperly sold the college's listener-supported classical music station to Minnesota Public Radio.

At the time, Blodgett said the college didn't want the few tickets available to go to those "who have forced the college to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees." The board president called Anderson's actions "the antithesis of Christianity."

Up until this year, free tickets were offered, in order, to students, faculty, staff, retired staff, parents of performing students, parents of other current students and alumni, Blodgett said. The college will continue the practice of not charging current St. Olaf students and of providing two complimentary concert tickets to faculty, staff and retired staff. Parents and alumni may purchase the remaining tickets.

Blodgett said that St. Olaf is a "70 percent tuition-dependent institution," meaning that 70 cents of each dollar in the operating budget is contributed by tuition. "The reality is that student tuition dollars are going to underwrite this, and is that a fair use of tuition dollars?"

As to whether Christmas Fest is a worship service or a concert, he answered carefully. "For many it is a very solemn, very spiritual experience, but although it's been called a worship service in the past, it really isn't, per se. If one really wanted to get very specific in the absence of any liturgy, prayers or communion, it is essentially a concert performance with the reading of the Christmas story. But I don't want to diminish the fact that it is a solemn experience for many attendees."

Hartwell, who lives in Albuquerque, N.M., said that even her distance from Minnesota hasn't stopped her from attending over the years.

"I have spent hundreds of dollars to attend Christmas Fest when you take plane tickets, rental cars, hotels and travel costs into account," she wrote. "Ticket fees would be a drop in the bucket. To me, that's not the issue."

Kim Ode • 612-673-7185