This Sunday, churches of many denominations will be participating in a tradition called Lessons and Carols celebrated in 1918 at King’s College, Cambridge, England, but with origins at Truro Cathedral in Cornwall. All of us “Doc Martin” followers are familiar with Cornwall and Truro.
The Nine Lessons and Carols or Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is a religious service that began in 1880 when the Right Rev. Edward White Benson, Bishop of Truro, led the first formal service of “Nine Lessons and Carols.” His ulterior motive was to encourage people away from boisterous drinking in the pubs on Christmas Eve and lure them into the church through a service of carols interspersed with scriptures. Christmas carols had for many years been considered secular, sung in people’s homes or by carolers strolling through neighborhoods and stopping at people’s homes to sing. Often they were invited inside and offered a warm drink as a thank you from their audience.
The inclusion of Christmas carols into church services happened during the Victorian era when in 1875 Richard Chope and Sabine Baring-Gould published “Carols for Use in Church During Christmas and Epiphany.” Another composer and organist, John Stainer, compiled “Christmas Carols New and Old,” and he introduced carols into a Choral Evensong at St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1878.
The Rev. George Walpole (later Bishop of Edinburgh) thought of combining carols and scripture in the first such service on Christmas Eve at 10 p.m. Four hundred people attended, a testament to the popularity of Lessons and Carols, a service which other denominations adopted and adapted.
By 1918, the Rev. Eric Milner-White, Dean of King’s College and former army chaplain, eager to celebrate after World War I, conducted the service as part of the choral tradition of the Choir of King’s College. The BBC broadcast the service in 1928, and it was televised from 1954 as “Carols from King’s,” the most popular presentation of the service which we can still see today. A 1954 service was added to the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress in the U.S. This Registry was established to “preserve and maintain culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant recordings and collections” that reflect or inform United States culture.
THE CAROLS AND THE LESSONSThough variations abound of this service, the traditional opening is a solo treble or soprano voice singing, “Once in Royal David’s City.” Some organists choose anthems to be sung among the carols (which the choir sings usually) and hymns (which choir and congregation sing together). Then the leader—priest, minister, pastor or other—gives the Bidding Prayer. The “bidding” derives from the Old English biddan, meaning to pray. In the program my church will use on Sunday, the prayer summarizes what the service will consist of: “Let us read and mark in holy Scripture the tale of the loving purposes of God from the first days of our disobedience unto the glorious redemption brought to us by this holy Child.” It also asks for remembrance of the unfortunate and the sinful.
The First Lesson comes from Genesis which relates the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Also from Genesis, the Second Lesson tells of God’s promise to Abraham that all nations, his descendants, will be blessed because that have obeyed God. The hymn, “In Christ There Is No East or West” or other hymn follows the Second Lesson.
The Third Lesson from Isaiah predicts the coming of the Savior: “The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light.” The hymn “Comfort, Comfort, Ye My People,” emphasizes the theme of solace and peace that the Fourth Lesson continues as, again, from Isaiah, the reader says, “. . .a little child shall lead them.” The hymn, “Soon and Very Soon,” foretells Christ’s coming.
The Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Lessons relate to chapters one and two of Luke in the New Testament when the angel Gabriel visits the Virgin Mary and proclaims, “The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore, the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.” The Sixth Lesson relates the birth of Christ in Bethlehem, followed by the hymn, “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” while the Seventh Lesson tells of the angel’s visit to the shepherds who determine to go to Bethlehem where they find Mary, Joseph, and the child. The hymn “Away in a Manger” follows this Lesson.
The Eighth Lesson from Matthew tells the journey of the wise men from the East, who, having seen “his star at its rising, [have] come to pay him homage.” From Bethlehem “shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.” Appropriately, “We Three Kings” is sung after this Lesson. One refrain seems to foreshadow Christ’s eventual death: “Myrrh is mine: Its bitter perfume / Breathes a life of gathering doom / Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying / Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.”
In the Ninth and final Lesson (some versions use only seven lessons) from John, John “unfolds the mystery of the Incarnation.” [John] himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.”
The last hymn is traditionally “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” This hymn says that Christ was born to give people second birth, that he brings “light and life to all.”
Just as this service brings peace, we look forward to the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn on Dec. 21 because in this year, especially, we need the hope and promise inherent in a Christmas Star. The New Year offers a clean slate on which to seek our destinies, to become the best nation and people we are called to be. We can erase the rancor of politics, the stench of corruption, the cult of personality—we can find a second birth.
Liz Meador is a retired English instructor from Wayne Community College and an adjunct at North Carolina Wesleyan College.