- Written by Tom Miles Tom Miles
- Created: December 27 2020 December 27 2020
The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College was first held on Christmas Eve 1918. From 1919 the service has always begun with the hymn “Once in Royal David’s City.” In almost every year the choice of carols has varied, and some new ones have been introduced by successive organists. The backbone of the service, the lessons and the prayers, has remained virtually unchanged.
The original service was, in fact, adapted from an Order drawn up by E. W. Benson, later Archbishop of Canterbury, for use on Christmas Eve 1880. His son recalled: “My father arranged from ancient sources a little service for Christmas Eve—nine carols and nine tiny lessons.” Almost immediately other churches adapted the service for their own use. A wider frame began to grow when the service was first broadcast in 1928 and, with the exception of 1930, it has been broadcast annually, even during the Second World War, when the ancient glass (and also all heat) had been removed from the Chapel. It is estimated that there are millions of listeners worldwide. The service has become public property; from time to time the College receives copies of services held, for example, in the West Indies or the Far East, showing how widely the tradition has spread.
Wherever the service is heard and however it is adapted, whether the music is provided by choir or congregation, the pattern and strength of the service, as Dean Milner-White pointed out, derive from the lessons and not the music. “The main theme is the development of the loving purposes of God in Christ, seen through the windows and the words of the Bible.” The center of the service is still found by those who “go in heart and mind” and consent to follow where the great Christmas story leads.
The lessons and carols (mp3)
Download the bulletin (pdf)