Origins of the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols

St Patrick’s Cathedral – DAVID ILIFF.
License: CC BY-SA 3.0 Wikicommons

By Dermot Carmody

It’s all about counting. How many sleeps till Christmas? The Twelve Days of Christmas, with their concomitant menagerie of fowl, jewelry and leaping aristocracy. Then there’s the Twelve Pubs of Christmas, which is an example of the kind of drinking game we love in Ireland, whereby an acceptable social structure is retrofitted to the ancient tradition of getting inebriated.

In current circumstances it is highly improbable that such an event can take place. Bad news for merriment, but maybe good news for fashion when you consider the usual garish and LED-twinkling attire of the participants. More on that later, there are more harmless seasonal counting games. The advent calendar, for example, with it’s chocolatey ticking off of the days (the trick, as any ten year old can confirm, is to forget to open it for two days in a row, thus storing up an advantageous adventure on your on days).

But one of the more wholesome staples of our Christmas numerological experience is the classic service of Nine Lessons and Carols. English, and specifically Anglican, in origin, this 19th Century running order has travelled across denominational boundaries and around the world. It began in Truro in Cornwall. Hymns in general and carols as a subspecies had grown in prevalence throughout the 19th century, but prior to this the custom had been for choristers to go round the parish from house to house carolling. The story goes that Bishop Benson formalised the practice of having a church service of carols on Christmas Eve which had begun a few years earlier, into a progression of songs and readings for a service on Christmas Eve in Truro Cathedral in 1880, which has survived unaltered in essence to the present day.

Truro Cathedral was being rebuilt at the time, and that 1880 service took place in a temporary wooden building which served as a cathedral for the duration of those works. It has been said that an ulterior motive to creating this ecclesiastical entertainment was to keep people out of the bars on Christmas Eve. It seems just as likely, however, that it was an effort to create an accessible liturgical narrative. With singing. Everybody likes singing at a party.

In the 20th Century the popularity of this form of worship and entertainment spread exponentially when the BBC began broadcasting the annual carol service from King’s College Cambridge. The first of these services was held in 1918, and was very close in form to the original as devised by Bishop Benson in Truro, and indeed to the one we might find in any number of churches, schools or concert halls in this century. The BBC radio broadcasts started in the 1930s and remain an annual event.

Closer to home, in Dublin the first service of Nine Lessons and Carols was held in 1914 in North Strand Church. It was organised by Rev. David Wilson, who had been inspired by reading Bishop Benson on the subject. Wilson went on to be rector in Donnybrook for a number of years in 1917 before becoming Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in 1935, where he instigated the custom there with the first of the St Patrick’s carol services, broadcast every Christmas by RTE to this day. So NewsFour is claiming him as a local man and celebrates his achievements in the field of Christmas tradition!

The readings, then as now, take us on a breakneck tour from creation, through fall from grace, via prophecies to the eventual fulfillment of these by the birth of the Saviour Christ. Even the theologically uninterested can find resonance in that story. Perhaps why there are so many counting games. We tick down to the end of the year, mindful of the moments slipping beyond repair in the past. But we have a happy and optimistic ending. Even if it’s only another year about to begin, and another go at getting it right.

Whether expressed virtually or physically, this year the service of Nine Lessons and Carols will still be a part of Christmas for many this year and for years to come. Of course, some might still prefer the twelve pubs of Christmas, which doubtless has its own potential for drama, or even tragedy. But really, it’s inferior as a theatrical event. And the singing is seldom as good.