GospelFest is Back with Christmas in the Country

The Santa Claus Parade, Yule Like Peoria and the Festival of Lights Parade are all great holiday programs for central Illinois but you need to add the annual GospelFest holiday program held at the Caterpillar Performing Arts Center at Five Points Washington to that list.

The GospelFest program has become a popular showcase for traditional holiday music for the area with a different theme provided each year. This year’s theme is “Christmas in the Country,” said Shawn Degenhart, who’s been directing the concerts for the past 15 years.

“The stage settings bring back the flavor of hauling your Christmas tree home back from the tree farm in your 1938 Chevy pick-up,” he said, adding that an old sleigh and a homemade hot cocoa stand will be additional  visual attractions when the show runs from 7 to 9:15 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 30 at Five Points.

“Every year we try to come up an original theme. We’ve presented it as a 1940s radio program in the past,” said Degenhart.

What remains consistent from year to year is the Christmas music. “We have our favorite holiday songs along with southern gospel numbers,” he said.

Degenhart not only plans the event but sings along with the GospelFest Singers, a group of 10 individuals, most from the Peoria area. “Eric Walker comes up from St. Louis to join us for the Christmas program,” said Degenhart, 44, who noted he got the music bug as a youngster while attending school in Washington.

Piano lessons in junior high were followed by singing in the high school choir, he said. At Illinois State University, he earned a bachelor’s degree in music theory and composition and music history along with a master’s in choral conducting.

Degenhart also met his wife Anne at ISU while she was working towards her master’s degree in music education. Normally on stage at the annual Christmas shows, Anne will miss this year’s program to spend time with the couple’s four children, he said, promising she’d be back singing with the group in the future.

Attending a Bill Gaither concert in 1997 fueled his own desire to present gospel music, said Degenhart. Gaither, who started his popular series of Homecoming concerts in 1991, is often credited with helping revive southern gospel in the 1990s.

Along with planning and producing GospelFest programs, Degenhart’s own radio show, “The GospelFest Hour,” is now heard on 165 radio stations around the world. The program is heard locally on Pekin station, WBNH-FM 88.5 Saturdays at 6 p.m.

WBNH station manager Jim Huber called Degenhart “a unique breed of cat.” “The guy’s talented. He’s able to do everything himself when it comes to producing a musical show. Shawn’s done the research; he’s got connections in Nashville and loves music from the 40s and 50s,” he said.

For a number of years, Degenhart also produced “The GospelFest Hour” from 7 to 8 p.m. weekdays on WBNH, said Huber. “Three years ago, he had to cut back on the weekday programs. His show is unique, an example of a national show that originates here,” he said.

Once again, admission to the Christmas program is free, said Degenhart, adding that those attending can make a free-will offering if they choose.  Doors open at 6 p.m. – and while the show starts at 7 p.m.- Degenhart encouraged arriving early. The 1,100-seat Five Points auditorium has filled up fast in the past, he said.

But that’s not the only area holiday show that Degenhart presents this year. He’s staging “A Great Christmas” at Grace Presbyterian Church, 8607 Illinois Route 91, from Dec. 6-8 (at 7 p.m. Friday and at 4 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday) “with a big choir and orchestra.”