Ceremony of Lessons and Carols
On the afternoon of December 24 a special Christmas service takes place at Cambridge University’s King’s College Chapel. Known as the “Ceremony of Lessons and Carols,” this service features nine Bible readings accompanied by nine Christmas Carols or other appropriate musical works. The King’s College service, first broadcast in 1928, helped to popularize this special Christmas observance. Today many churches in ENGLAND, the United States, and around the world hold their own versions of this ceremony.
An Anglican bishop, Edward W. Benson, who later was archbishop of Canterbury, devised the first Ceremony of Nine Lessons and Carols. Benson is said to have modeled the new carol service on medieval vigil services. Benson presented the first Ceremony of Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve in 1880. The service took place in the wooden shed that served as the cathedral in Truro, England. The Bible lessons were read by a wide spectrum of church officers, beginning with a chorister and ending with the bishop.
The service quickly began to spread to other congregations. Eric Milner-White, dean of King’s College Chapel, introduced the service there in 1918. The Order of Service was revised in 1919, and the song “Once in Royal David’s City” established as the opening hymn. The King’s College service is still broadcast every year on the radio (except in the year 1930), and in recent years it has also been aired on television.
The Ceremony of Lessons and Carols has spread far beyond its native land. Churches all over the world now offer their version of the service during Advent. The standard format calls for a series of alternating Bible readings and carols, bracketed by opening and closing prayers. Although the choice of lessons and carols may vary, the heart of the service remains the same. The series of readings describes the unfolding of God’s love for humanity from a biblical perspective. The carols enhance the beauty of the service by treating the same subject in music.