Lessons and Carols – A Brief History of the Service

December 9th, 2021

At Trinitas, our annual Lessons and Carols service has always been a cherished way for our community to focus our hearts and minds on the proper subject of the Advent season—our Lord Jesus Christ. The particular service we share today has a long tradition extending back to the original version performed on Christmas Eve in Cornwall, England in 1880. At that time, the Right Rev. Edward White Benson, concerned with peoples’ worldly attentions and activities during the holidays, looked for a way to get revelers out of the pubs and into church. The Rev. George Walpole had the idea for a celebration consisting of Christmas music interspersed with Bible readings. The first service of “Nine Lessons and Carols” was attended by over 400 people in a temporary wooden structure (the local cathedral was still under construction).

Benson’s service grew in popularity, and the young dean of King’s College in Cambridge, Eric Milner-White, became familiar with it. A former army chaplain during World War I, he was concerned that the experience of the war had turned people away from Christian worship. On Christmas Eve, 1918, Milner-White introduced the service at King’s, hoping like Benson, to bring people back to church. In 1919, Milner-White began the service with “Once in Royal David’s City” and wrote the bidding prayer. While carols have varied, the opening hymn, prayers, and readings have remained virtually unchanged for over 100 years. The “Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols” continues to grow in popularity, being broadcast by the BBC yearly since 1928 (with the exception of 1930), through World War II (without stained glass or heating), and during the COVID pandemic (without a congregation in 2020).

We hope that you will be blessed by this abbreviated version of a beautiful Advent tradition. It has always been in its various times, places, and forms, a way of redirecting peoples’ attention from the corruption and cares and the warfare and weariness of the world toward the promise and hope of the Messiah.