The History of Lessons & Carols
For millions around the world, Christmas isn’t Christmas until they’ve heard the lone treble voice sing the opening verse of “Once in Royal David’s City” broadcast from King’s College Chapel in Cambridge. Every Christmas Eve since 1918, King’s College has held a service called A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, which features a mix of carols and readings from the Bible. Though it is now inextricably linked with King’s College and its renowned choir, you may be surprised to learn that the first lessons and carols service was actually held in Cornwall, not Cambridge.
King’s A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols grew out of the ashes of the First World War. In 1918, a 34-year-old former army chaplain named Eric Milner-White was appointed Dean of King’s College. Nothing could prepare him for the atrocities he witnessed on the Western Front when he volunteered for service in 1914. He came home believing that the church was failing the troops. How could he communicate a message of God’s love to those who had been brutalized and traumatized by war?
Milner-White devised A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols as a means of outreach to those who felt alienated by the church or religion as a whole. Instead of a complicated mass, the carols service was simpler, alternating between choral anthems, congregational hymns, and readings. The resulting service had more drama and color, was more accessible and meaningful, and acknowledged the suffering of those impacted by the Great War. This gesture was particularly important to the town of Cambridge, which had lost 211 men from King’s College alone during the war. This loss prompted the Dean to include a prayer to honor the fallen, which is still read at the beginning of the service to this day.
Milner-White based the service on an order created in 1880 by Edward White Benson, the first Bishop of Truro, for use in the wooden shed that served as the temporary worship space while Truro Cathedral was being built. Benson’s intention was partly to keep his parishioners from reveling too much in the “wrong” kind of Christmas spirit down at the pub. But it was also a way to bring together his congregation at a time of uncertainty while they awaited the construction of their cathedral.
Benson excerpted nine lessons from the Old and New Testaments and interspersed them with familiar hymns, carols, and three movements from Handel’s Messiah to tell the Christmas story. The first lesson was read by a chorister, and each subsequent lector progressed through the church hierarchy, with the final lesson being read by the bishop, a tradition that endures to this day at King's.
Benson’s service was an immediate success, tapping into the carol revival that was taking place in Victorian England. Similar carols services spread outside of Cornwall, but it wasn’t until King’s College adapted it that the service was truly put on the map. The popularity of King’s service was hastened by the first radio broadcast in 1928, and it soon became a global phenomenon when the BBC began broadcasting the service overseas in the early 1930s.
Except for in 1930 and 2020, the service has been broadcast live every year since, even during the Second World War. During the Blitz, the priceless stained-glass windows were removed and put in storage for safe keeping, replaced by blackout material and gray tar-paper that flapped noisily in the wind. The chapel also did not have heat, and the location was never uttered on the air for security reasons. Nevertheless, the service was still broadcast to give peace and comfort to those who tuned in around the world. In 2020, COVID-19 restrictions in the UK meant that for the first time since 1918, the service could not take place. Fortunately, the choir had the foresight to prerecord their musical selections earlier that December to an empty chapel shortly before widespread lockdowns were implemented.
Today, the BBC's radio broadcast of the service reaches an estimated global audience of 100 million people, and choral enthusiasts travel from far and wide to queue overnight in hopes of securing a coveted seat inside the chapel. That’s a lot of pressure on the lone boy chorister who must begin the opening hymn, “Once in Royal David’s City,” unaccompanied. That’s why it has become tradition that the boy who is selected for the solo does not find out until the moment he has to step forward to sing. The late Stephen Cleobury, Director of Music from 1982 to 2019, explained that this was in an effort to limit nerves so no one would get psyched out about it. He always had a few choristers in mind beforehand but chose who would go on based on who was in the best voice that day.
The 16 boys that make up the treble section of the choir range in age from 9 to 13. They board at King’s College School and sing services six days a week at the chapel throughout the school year. The lower voices are made up of 14 undergraduate choral scholars—four countertenors (male altos), four tenors, and six basses—divided equally on each side of the choir. Two organ scholars also provide accompaniment, play voluntaries, and assist in the training of the choristers.
Though the backbone of A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols—the readings and prayers—remains consistent, the music changes from year to year. Cleobury wanted to demonstrate the college’s commitment to contemporary music, so in 1983 he started a tradition of commissioning a new carol each year. Past commissions have come from such illustrious composers as John Rutter, Jonathan Dove, Arvo Pärt, and John Tavener. Take a listen to one such commission below, Judith Weir’s “Illuminare Jerusalem,” commissioned in 1985. The text, in medieval Scots, comes from an anonymous 15th-century poem, which Weir brings to life with her characteristic harmonic stamp that is both decisively modern and yet medieval in flavor.
You can catch this year’s A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College Cambridge at 7 p.m. on Christmas Day on WILL-FM 90.9, courtesy of American Public Media.