Lessons and Carols

Lessons and Carols

Melanie was wondering last night about the origin of the Service of Lessons and Carols. As I mentioned the other day, her parish had Lessons and Carols before Midnight Mass: Scripture readings outlining salvation history interspersed with traditional Christmas carols and hymns.

In her research online, she was only able to find references to Anglican Lessons and Carols services. Is this an Anglican import? Where does it come from? What is its history?

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Written by
Domenico Bettinelli
3 comments
  • Here’s a bit about the origins: (from hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com)

    The traditional origin of the carol service is the Festival Of Nine Lessons and Carols, which was created in 1880 at Truro, Cornwall, England by Rev. G. H. S. Walpole, later the Bishop at Edinburgh and Bishop Edward White Benson, later the Archbishop of Canterbury, . The first Festival was conducted at 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve, 1880, under the conductorship of the Vicar Choral, Rev. Walpole, and the Organist, Mr. William Mitchell. According to A. C. Benson, “My father arranged from ancient sources a little service for Christmas Eve – nine carols and nine tiny lessons, which were read by various officers of the Church, beginning with a chorister, and ending, through the different grades, with the Bishop.”
    In 1918, this service was adapted for use at King’s College, Cambridge; the first service was conducted Christmas Eve 1918. It was created by Very Reverend Eric Milner-White, Dean of King’s College, who after experience as an army chaplain became convinced that the Church of England needed more imaginative worship.

    The Christmas Eve Festival is annually broadcast on the BBC, both radio and television (1500 GMT); radio and television stations in many countries rebroadcast the service. Recordings of past festivals are also available at the King’s College Chapel Shop and elsewhere. A more detailed history of the service is also available.

  • Yes, it is Anglican, as Chris has shown, above. It’s a very nice idea, and in the UK it has become a Christmas “social event”. I met my husband at a “Carol Service” at the Church of St Martin in the Fields, in London. We all met up at the church, and afterwards went out for dinner. Four months later we were engaged, and that was almost 24 years ago.

  • Thanks Chris, but I’m a little dubious about the site’s accuracy since they perpetuate the erroneous legend that the dating of Christmas follows the pagan holiday. (see Dom’s earlier entry on that subject.)
    Otherwise, the information matches what I have found online in several places, but none with sound historical evidence.
    I’m also curious about the “ancient sources” I’ve seen cited in several places. What exactly do they mean by that? Are they just refering to the fact that the individual carols are much older than their arrangement in this particular service? Were there older services that also grouped carols with scripture readings?
    I’ve also seen sites that claim a much older origin for the lessons and carols. I’d like to find something more definitive.

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