The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is a service of Christian worship celebrating the birth of Jesus that is traditionally followed at Christmas. The story of the fall of humanity, the promise of the Messiah, and the birth of Jesus is told in nine short Bible readings from Genesis, the prophetic books and the Gospels, interspersed with the singing of Christmas carols, hymns and choir music.
The Choir of the Cathedral will sing a number of carols in the Cathedral on Christmas Eve, the service commencing at 10pm. We understand that this is at the wish of many of the leading parishioners and others. A like service has been instituted in other cathedral and large towns, and has been much appreciated. It is the intention of the choir to no longer continue the custom of singing carols at the residences of members of the congregation.
Two years later, Edward White Benson, at that time Bishop of Truro in Cornwall but later Archbishop of Canterbury, formalised the service with Nine Lessons for use on Christmas Eve (24 December) 1880. The first service took place at 10:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve in the temporary wooden structure serving as his cathedral whilst the new cathedral was being built. Over 400 people attended this first service. There is an oft-repeated myth that the purpose of the service was to keep men out of the pubs.
The service has subsequently been in continuous use (with modifications) in Truro since 1880, and followed Bishop Benson in his new appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1883. In December 2013 Truro Cathedral staged a reconstruction of Bishop Benson's original 1880 Nine Lessons with Carols Service which was attended by an audience of over 1,500 people.
The original liturgy has since been adapted and used by other churches all over the world. Lessons and Carols most often occur in Anglican churches. However, numerous Christian denominations have adopted this service, or a variation on this service, as part of their Christmas celebrations. In the UK, the service has become the standard format for school carol services.
The best-known version is broadcast annually from King's College, Cambridge, on Christmas Eve. It features carols sung by the famous Choir of King's College. Brown University in Providence Rhode Island celebrated its 100th Service of Lessons and Carols in 2016, holding its first festival one year before King's College began theirs. From Brown, the festival tradition has spread to other US institutions, including Groton School of Groton, Massachusetts, which performed its first Lessons and Carols in 1928.
The first Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King's College, Cambridge, was held on Christmas Eve in 1918. It was introduced by Eric Milner-White, the Dean of the College, whose experience as an army chaplain had led him to believe that more imaginative worship was needed by the Church of England. The order of service was adapted from the order created by Benson for Truro Cathedral 38 years earlier, which was based on an idea of George Walpole, at the time Succentor of Truro Cathedral, and the future Bishop of Edinburgh. The first service at King's largely followed Benson's original plan, including the Benedictions before each reading, several of which were later amalgamated by Milner-White into his Bidding Prayer.
The music at the first service at King's was directed by Arthur Henry Mann, who was the organist from 1876 to 1929. The choir had 16 trebles as specified in statutes laid down by Henry VI, and until 1927 the men's voices were provided by choral scholars and lay clerks. Today, 14 undergraduates from the Choir of King's College, Cambridge, sing the men's parts.
The service was first broadcast by the British Broadcasting Corporation in 1928 and, except for 1930, has been broadcast every year since. During the 1930s the BBC began broadcasting the service on its overseas programmes. Even throughout the Second World War, despite the stained glass having been removed from the Chapel and the lack of heating, the broadcasts continued. For security reasons, the name "King's" was not mentioned during wartime broadcasts. Since the Second World War, it has been estimated that each year there are millions of listeners worldwide who listen to the service live on the BBC World Service. Domestically, the service is broadcast live on BBC Radio 4, and a recorded broadcast is made on Christmas Day on BBC Radio 3. In the US, a 1954 service was put into the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress in 2008. The broadcast has been heard live on public radio stations affiliated with American Public Media since 1979, and most stations broadcast a repeat on Christmas Day. Since 1963, the service has been periodically filmed for television broadcast in the UK. Presently, each year a programme entitled Carols from King's is pre-recorded in early or mid-December then shown on Christmas Eve in the UK on BBC Two and BBC Four. The programme is weighted more heavily in favour of carols sung by the choir, with only seven readings in total, not all of which are from the Bible.
The format of the first Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols did not differ substantially from the one known at King's College, Cambridge today. The order of the lessons was revised in 1919, and since that time the service has always begun with the hymn "Once in Royal David's City". These days the first verse is sung unaccompanied by a solo boy chorister. To avoid putting him under undue stress, the chorister is not told that he will be singing the solo until immediately before the service is to begin.
The Nine Lessons, which are the same every year, are read by representatives of the college and of the City of Cambridge from the 1611 Authorized King James Version of the Bible. The singing is divided into "carols" which are sung by the Choir of King's College, Cambridge, and "hymns" sung by the Choir and congregation. Some services have also included anthems between the carols and hymns, such as a performance of "E'en So, Lord Jesus, Quickly Come" in 2004. Since 1982 the current Director of Music, Stephen Cleobury, has commissioned a new carol each year on behalf of the College for the Choir. The carols vary from year to year, although some music is repeated. The service ends with the hymn "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing". The following is from the service in 2008.
(When Thou wast born in wintertime)
|Words: Betty Askwith|
Music: Lennox Berkeley
|1984||One Star, at Last
(Fix on one star)
|Words: George Mackay Brown|
Music: Peter Maxwell Davies
|1985||Illuminare Jerusalem||Words: adapted from the Bannatyne manuscript in John MacQueen; Winifred MacQueen (1972), A Choice of Scottish Verse, 1470–1570, London: Faber and Faber, ISBN 0-571-09532-1.|
Music: Judith Weir
|1986||Nowel, Nowel, Holly Dark||Words: Walter de la Mare|
Music: Richard Rodney Bennett
|1987||What Sweeter Music Can We Bring||Words: Robert Herrick|
Music: John Rutter
|1988||The Birthday of thy King
(Awake, glad heart, get up, and sing!)
|Words: After Henry Vaughan|
Music: Peter Sculthorpe
|1989||Carol of St. Steven||Words: Adapted from W. Sandys' Christmas Carols|
Music: Alexander Goehr
|1990||? ?, ?
(Rejoice, O Virgin Mary)
|Words: the Orthodox Liturgy (in Russian)|
Music: Arvo Pärt
|1991||A Gathering||Words: Lancelot Andrewes|
Music: John Casken
|1992||Swetë Jesu||Words: Anonymous, 13th Century|
Music: Nicholas Maw
|1993||Christo Paremus Cantica||Words: Anonymous, 15th Century|
Music: Diana Burrell
(Should you hear them singing among stars)
|Words: John V. Taylor|
Music: Jonathan Harvey
|1995||Seinte Marie Moder Milde||Words: From a 13th-century manuscript in the Library of Trinity College, Cambridge|
Music: James MacMillan
(Iesus! Christus! In the manger of my body)
|Words: Kevin Crossley-Holland|
Music: Stephen Paulus
|1997||The Fayrfax Carol||Words: Early Tudor, anonymous|
Music: Thomas Adès
|1998||Winter Solstice Carol||English words and music: Giles Swayne|
Latin words: Magnificat antiphon for Christmas Day
|1999||On Christmas Day to My Heart||Words: Clement Paman|
Music: Richard Rodney Bennett
|2000||The Three Kings||Words: The Three Kings (1916) by Dorothy L. Sayers|
Music: Jonathan Dove
|2001||Spring in Winter||Words: C. Smart, from Hymn &c: The Nativity of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ|
Music: John Woolrich
|2002||The Angel Gabriel Descended to a Virgin||Words: 15th–17th century|
Music: Robin Holloway
(Not yet shepherds the gilded kings)
|Words: Stephen Plaice|
Music: Harrison Birtwistle
|2004||God would be born in thee
(Lo, in the Silent Night a Child in God is Born)
|Words: Angelus Silesius|
Music: Judith Bingham
|2005||Carol: Away in a Manger||Words: 19th century|
Music: John Tavener
|Organ postlude: Improvisation on "Adeste Fideles"||Francis Pott|
|2006||Carol: Misere' Nobis
(Jesu of a Maiden Thou wast Born)
|Words: a version of a medieval English carol|
Music: Mark-Anthony Turnage
|Organ postlude: Recessional on "In the Bleak Midwinter"||Lionel Steuart Fothringham|
|2007||Carol: Noël (Now comes the dawn)
(Stardust and vaporous light)
|Words: Richard Watson Gilder|
Music: Brett Dean
|Organ postlude: Sortie on "In Dulci Jubilo"||David Briggs|
(The Night when She First Gave Birth)
|Words: Bertolt Brecht, translated by Michael Hamburger|
Music: Dominic Muldowney
|2009||The Christ Child||Words: GK Chesterton|
Music: Gabriel Jackson
|2010||Christmas Carol (Offerings they brought of gold)||Words: Einojuhani Rautavaara, translated by Hanni-Mari & Christopher Latham|
Music: Einojuhani Rautavaara
|2011||Christmas hath a darkness||Words: Christina Rossetti|
Music: Tansy Davies
|2012||Ring Out, Wild Bells||Words: Alfred, Lord Tennyson|
Music: Carl Vine
|2013||Hear the voice of the Bard||Words: William Blake|
Music: Thea Musgrave
|2014||De Virgine Maria||Words: 12th-century Latin, translated by Ronald Knox|
Music: Carl Rütti
|2015||The Flight||Words: George Szirtes|
Music: Richard Causton
|2016||This Endernight||Words: Anonymous c1400|
Music: Michael Berkeley
|2017||Carol Eliseus||Words: Welsh|
Music: Huw Watkins
The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols held on Christmas Eve at King's College Chapel is primarily intended for the City of Cambridge and members of the general public. There are about 650 seats in the Chapel for the service, most of which are in the Ante-Chapel; seats in the Choir are largely reserved for College members and their guests.
The demand for seats always exceeds the number available. Members of the public are admitted to the College through the main gate on King's Parade from 7:30 am (though some start queueing the night before), and each person is given an information leaflet which must be retained and shown to the duty porter for re-entry if he or she desires to leave the queue temporarily. People joining the queue before 9:00 am will usually gain admission to the Chapel, but this is not guaranteed. Porters monitor the number of people joining the queue, and once there are as many people as there are seats available, the others are advised that it is unlikely they will be able to attend the service. Members of Collegium Regale (the Choral Scholars of King's College Choir) usually sing Christmas carols to entertain the people who are queueing.
A limited number of seats are available for people unable to queue due to disability or illness. Application for such seats must be made by 31 October to the personal assistant of the Dean of King's College.
The doors of the Chapel are opened at 1:30 pm and the public allowed to find their seats. As the service is broadcast live by BBC Radio 4, at the request of the BBC it begins a little after 3:00 pm and not exactly on the hour due to an hourly radio news update. It concludes at around 4:30 pm or 4:45 pm at the earliest.
The Choir of Groton School, of Groton, Massachusetts, USA, has been presenting a Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols since 1928, ten years after the service was introduced at King's. Groton holds the distinction of having the oldest tenured Lessons and Carols service in the United States. The school's first organist and choirmaster, Twining Lynes, is believed to have heard the service at King's, and shortly thereafter began the tradition with his choir at Groton. Since its inception, only seven organists have presided over the Groton service. Beginning in 2014, the choir has been conducted by Dan Moriarty. The choir performs the service three times to an overall crowd of over 2,000 people. The first service is open to the residents of Groton, MA and the surrounding towns, the second service is for parents and alumni, and the last service is done for the students and faculty and is broadcast live on Groton's website. The service at Groton consists of an orchestra prelude, and then nine lessons read by students, faculty, and members of the community. Interspersed throughout the lessons are a number of hymns and songs sung by the Choir.
The oldest service in an American parish church is at Saint Thomas in Hanover, New Hampshire, where the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols has been presented annually since 1935. Diane Meredith Belcher has been the Music Director (Organist & Choirmaster) at Saint Thomas since 2014; the children's choir is directed by Sarah Slater.