Nine Lessons and Carols
Our traditional service of nine lessons and carols is, for us at St Frances one of our highlights of the year, the coming together of friends and family, the singing of beloved carols and the beautiful message within the gospel lessons, oh and let’s not forget a glass of mulled wine after the service.
So, let's delve into the history and find out a bit more about this Christmas service.
The origins of this service can be attributed to Truro Cathedral, up until the late 19th Century, the singing of Christmas carols was normally performed by singers visiting people’s houses, the carols were at this point not considered religious in their content and were excluded from church worship.
We now arrive at the Victorian era, the rising popularity of singing composed hymns encouraged by church musicians to introduce carols into the worship.
A book of carols, called Carols for use in church during Christmas and Epiphany (catchy title) by a Richard Chope and Rev Sabine Baring-Gould, which was an influential publication at this time.
As a byline, I might add Rev Sabine was an Anglican Priest from Devon, however, claim to fame here for me is, he wrote “Onward Christian Solders” and translated Gabriel’s message into English.
Around the same time the composer and organist John Stainer was gathering a collection of old and new Christmas carols, and at Christmas in 1878 he introduced carols into the service of choral evensong at St Pauls Cathedral. Other Cathedrals began to copy the idea of carols at Christmas, and the same year, the Royal Cornwall Gazette reported that the choir of Truro Cathedral would sing a service of carols at 10:00 pm on Christmas Eve.
Its report in the paper went with
“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 the wish of many of the leading parishioners. A service like this has been instituted in other cathedrals and large towns and has been warmly welcomed. It is the intention of the choir to no longer continue to sing carols at the residences of members of the congregation”
Two years later, 1880 Rev Edward White Benson, at that time the Bishop of Truro conducted the first formal service of Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve.
Rev Benson concerned at the amount of alcohol consumed in Cornish pubs at this time, sought a means to enticing revelers out of the pubs and into the church by the means of offering religious celebration of Christmas, the idea of the music interspersed with bible readings was proposed by a Rev George Walpole, and thus the first Nine lessons and Carols service took place at 10;00 pm on Christmas Eve
The Son of Rev Edward Benson (A.C.Benson) later recalled that his father arranged this little service for Christmas Eve, nine carols and nine tiny lessons, they were read by various members of the congregation, beginning with a chorister and ending through different grades with the bishops himself.
Rev A.C. Bishop (worth mentioning here wrote the words to Land of Hope and Glory) was appointed to be Archbishop of Canterbury in 1883 and from then on the Nine Lessons service began to gain popularity across the Church of England and Anglican Community and now has been adapted and used by churches all over the world.
This now roughly brings us up to date with a more modern tradition.
In 1918 Rev Eric Milner-White, the new dean of Kings Collage Cambridge, introduced the service to the collage chapel, taking full advantage of the long-established choral tradition of the Kings Collage Chapel Choir. It proved very successful and so began an annual tradition, be it with some alterations to the original format.
The BBC became involved, and from 1928 began to broadcast on the radio and then on to the telly from 1954 establishing “Carols from Kings” which has gone on to become a widely recognised presentation of this service. Presently each year a programme entitled Carols from Kings is Pre-recorded in early or mid-December then shown on Christmas Eve on BBC2 or BBC4, with millions worldwide who listen on the BBC World service.
So now you know, this service has come a long way from humble beginnings.
I began by saying that this service is a highlight of our year, and with this in mind we look forward to welcoming you to our service, we hope you’ll enjoy being with us and perhaps come and say hello, enjoy a glass of mulled wine and a mince pie, not a prerequisite for this service, but this our tradition at St Francis, so I hope you approve.