A Note from Jim
A HUNDRED YEARS OF LESSONS AND CAROLS
A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols was first held at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge on Christmas Eve in 1918. It was planned by Eric Milner-White, who, at the age of thirty-four, had just been appointed Dean of King’s after experience as an army chaplain during World War I, which had convinced him that the Church of England needed more imaginative worship.
(He also devised the College’s Advent Carol Service in 1934, and was a liturgical pioneer and authority during his twenty-two years as Dean of York.)
The Choir was then directed by Arthur Henry Mann, who had been Organist since 1876, and was very dubious about this innovation. It included sixteen trebles (sopranos) as laid down in King Henry VI’s statutes, but until 1927 the men’s voices were provided partly by Choral Scholars and partly by older Lay Clerks. Today the Choral Scholars are all undergraduates of the College. The 1918 service was, in fact, adapted from an order drawn up by E.W. Benson, later Archbishop of Canterbury, for use in the large wooden shed which then served as his cathedral in Truro at 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve, 1880. Since 1919, the service has always begun with the hymn ‘Once in royal David’s city’, with the first verse sung by a treble soloist. Each year, the solo is assigned to a chorister just seconds before the service begins!
Archbishop Benson 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’. The idea had come from G.H.S. Walpole, later Bishop of Edinburgh. Over time, many other churches adapted the service for their own use. In the immediate aftermath of World War I, Milner-White decided that A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols would be a more uplifting occasion at King’s College than Evensong on Christmas Eve. So he used Benson’s plan, but wrote a new Bidding Prayer to set the tone at the beginning of the service. Since then, the spoken parts, which provide the backbone of the service, have only occasionally changed, while musical selections have varied, with special musical commissions composed by prominent contemporary composers.
The service was first broadcast in 1928 and, with the exception of 1930, it has been broadcast annually, even during World War II, when the ancient glass (and also all heat) had been removed from the Chapel. In the early 1930s, the BBC began broadcasting the service overseas, and it is estimated that there are millions of listeners worldwide, including those who tune in to BBC Radio 4 in the United Kingdom. Present day broadcasts have become part of Christmas for many far from Cambridge. One correspondent wrote of hearing the service in a tent on the foothills of Everest; another, in the desert. Many listen at home, busy with their own preparations for Christmas.
Wherever the service is heard and however it is adapted, it takes us on a journey through the Advent season into Christmastide, telling the timeless story of humanity, the promise of the Messiah, and the birth of Jesus through the reading of lessons from Genesis, the prophetic books and Gospels and the singing of Christmas hymns and carols.
Please join us for a St. Margaret's version of this 100th anniversary service this Sunday at the 9:00 and 11:15 a.m. services.
I hope you are having a very Merry Christmas and wish you a Happy New Year as well!
Photos below: King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, UK, August 2018