The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is one of the best known services of Christian worship celebrating the birth of Jesus which 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, combined with Christmas carols, hymns and choir music.
The format was based on an Order drawn up by Edward White Benson, who was then Bishop of Truro - later Archbishop of Canterbury - for use on Christmas Eve in 1880. 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, but also in some Roman Catholic, Lutheran parishes, and Presbyterian institutions. However numerous Christian churches have adopted this service, or a variation on this service, as part of their Christmas celebrations.
Perhaps the most famous version is held in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, in the UK. Broadcast live on Christmas Eve to millions of people around the world, it always begins with the carol, ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ which is sung by a solo chorister. The world renowned Chapel Choir also leads the congregation in traditional Christmas hymns.
The first service in 1918 was conceived by Eric Milner-White, the Dean of the College, who wanted to introduce more imaginative worship. The music was directed by the organist and composer Arthur Henry Mann. The choir had 16 trebles as specified in statutes laid down by Henry VI. Until 1927 the men’s voices were provided by choral scholars and lay clerks.
The format of the service did not differ substantially from the one known today. 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. Whilst the carols vary from year to year, some music is repeated. The service ends with the hymn ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’.