The Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols


In the year 1880 in the city of Cornwall, England, Edward White Benson was newly named the Bishop of Truro. Benson at that time had two special challenges. One was overseeing the building of the new Truro Cathedral. The other was that his parishioners went drinking on Christmas Eve. To encourage his parishioners to a more holy activity on the Eve of Christmas, the Bishop of Truro himself composed a little service to be celebrated in a wooden temporary structure that served as the church while the new Cathedral was being built. Benson’s son recalled, “My father arranged from ancient sources a little service for Christmas Eve — nine carols and nine tiny lessons, which were read by various officers of the Church, beginning with a chorister, and ending, through the different grades, with the Bishop”. After that first service in 1880, Lessons and Carols grew in popularity throughout the Church of England.

In 1918, Eric Milner-White, Dean of King’s College Cambridge, desired to use the Festival of Lessons and Carols for their Christmas Eve service. He made some additions and adjustments to the Truro service and composed the King’s College Cambridge service of Festival of Lessons and Carols. The service was sung on Christmas Eve 1918 in the chapel of the college by the renowned Choir of King’s College Cambridge. The Choir of King’s College Cambridge was established by pious King Henry VI, who decreed that sixteen “poor and needy” boys, fourteen men, and two organ scholars perform religious services for the College. So the Choir of King’s College Cambridge sang their first Festival of Lessons and Carols in 1918 and has kept it as their Christmas Eve service ever since.

The choir at King’s College Cambridge always begins with the hymn “Once in Royal David’s City” and ends with “O Come, All Ye Faithful” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”. From the back of the chapel, selected only moments before the service by the music director, a boy chorister sings alone the first verse of “Once In Royal David’s City”. While singing, the chorister leads the procession up the center aisle, the choir joins in the second verse, and the congregation in the third.

The “Bidding Prayer” was an addition by Eric Milner- White which has been faithfully said every year from that first service in 1918. World War I had been officially declared just six weeks prior. King’s College had lost staff, students, and alumni. Milner- White, who served as a Chaplain in WWI, thoughtfully considered that everyone listening to Lessons and Carols was connected to the loss of a loved one. So in the Bidding Prayer several lines were specifically worded for those who suffered loss of loved ones from the war:

Lastly, let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore, and in a greater light, that multitude which no man can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh, and with whom in the Lord Jesus we are forever one.

A young British Broadcasting Corporation decided to broadcast the King’s College Cambridge Service of Lessons and Carols in 1928. From 1930 on, the BBC has broadcast the service every year to a worldwide audience on Christmas Eve. In 1978, Nicholas Nash, director of Minnesota Public Radio, succeeded in bringing Lessons and Carols to American radio. The Choir of King’s College Cambridge has been celebrated on American airwaves ever since.

St. Michael’s by-the-Sea’s Lessons and Carols service is modeled after the King’s College Chapel service. Mindful of the community, we celebrate Lessons and Carols in the weeks preceding Christmas Eve. (The Festival of Lessons and Carols originally could be performed on any of the traditional twelve days of Christmas.)

Join in the Lesson & Carol festivities on December 20th at 4:30 pm for carol singing, scripture reading, and holiday cheer!

This article was written by Josephine McGrath, Ph.D. and published in the 2014 Winter Messenger.


Posted on December 14th, by Megan Stanton in Music Ministy.
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