A History of Lessons and Carols

The muddy, bloody origins of a treasured Christmas Eve ritual

Far from being an ancient tradition, the service of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge, were conceived in the trenches of the First World War.

Alexandra Coghlan

10 December 2016

Christmas, for many people, begins at exactly 3 p.m. on Christmas Eve. It’s the moment when everything stops, frantic present-wrapping, mince-pie making and tree-decorating ceases and calm briefly takes hold. The reason? A single boy treble whose voice, clear and fragile as glass, pierces through the chaos with those familiar words: ‘Once in Royal David’s city/ Stood a lowly cattle shed…’.

The service of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge, and its annual broadcast on BBC Radio 4 is as essential a part of contemporary Christmas folklore as stockings and Santa Claus, plum pudding and presents. Ageless and timeless, it seems as though there must always have been boys in red robes singing carols in a candlelit chapel — an ancient ritual renewed with each generation.


invented by Teads

But the reality is quite different. The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols was celebrated at King’s for the first time in 1918, not a historic service at all but an invented tradition — modern and man-made. And tempting though it is to imagine that this delicate fusion of words and music was created in the exquisite interior of King’s Chapel, the product of contemplation and beauty, its origins were in fact far less exalted: born in a wooden hut in Truro and conceived in the muddy, bloody trenches of the first world war, a child of horror and suffering, not peace and goodwill.

The story of Nine Lessons and Carols begins with an Anglican clergyman. Eric Milner-White was the ‘very shy, but tremendously kind’ young man appointed chaplain of King’s in 1912. Quick to volunteer when war broke out in 1914, he traded the quiet life of Cambridge for the squalor and violence of the French front line. Most of his letters home are gone, destroyed by Milner-White himself. But the few that remain paint a vivid picture of his experience, caught between banality (‘On days when too many tragedies aren’t happening there are many elements of the picnic about it’) and horror (‘Most of life is at night, and the nights are filled with prolonged terror — a horrid, weird, furtive existence’).

Returning to Cambridge in 1918 after ‘a battle of special horror’, Milner-White was appointed dean of King’s and immediately set about reforming a liturgy his experience convinced him was not just inadequate but irrelevant to the needs of a community so damaged and disillusioned. ‘Colour, warmth and delight’ were to be the focus, offering aesthetic as well as spiritual consolation in only the simplest and most direct language. Wanting to create a special service for Christmas, Milner-White took inspiration from Edward White Benson — the first bishop of the new diocese of Truro.

Created in 1876, the diocese had neither traditions nor a cathedral to house them in, so for seven years the congregation gathered in a temporary wooden hut, boasting neither ventilation nor heating. The context was a simple one, and Benson wanted a Christmas Eve service to match it — something that would serve, pragmatically, ‘…both as a counter-attraction to the public houses and as a right prelude to Christmas’. And so the service was born, a potent combination of ‘nine carols and nine tiny lessons’ that provided the structure still familiar to us today.

The hierarchy of readers — progressing up through the ecclesiastical ranks from a lowly chorister to the Bishop himself — was already there, as was the Biblical narrative, moving from Old Testament to New, from Creation to Incarnation. But it was Milner-White who found the simple essence of the service, cutting the more ponderous elements to reveal its emotional and spiritual core, speaking directly to those attending without the need for a mediating sermon.

What started out as a local phenomenon, a ‘gift to the city of Cambridge’, quickly became a gift to a much wider community. In 1928 the service was first broadcast by BBC Radio, and since 1938 the World Service has transmitted it to listeners across the world, with television broadcasts joining it annually from 1963. Such popularity could never have been imagined by Milner-White, but the enduring and widespread appeal speaks to this young man’s understanding of human nature. That the broadcasts persisted internationally throughout the second world war, not just in Allied but also occupied and even Axis nations, speaks loudly of the service’s power, and stories abound of British and American soldiers imprisoned in German and Japanese prisoner-of-war camps recreating the King’s service as best they could with makeshift instruments and robes.

The need for beauty, for simplicity and innocence is as great now as it ever was, and in a world of growing divisions, tensions and ever-escalating conflict we still find fulfilment in a service that stimulates but also consoles. So next time you turn on the radio and hear that lone chorister, or watch King’s candlelit choir on the television, remember that this is beauty born in blood, a cry for peace that was nearly drowned out in the noise of battle.

Alexandra Coghlan is the author of Carols From King’s: The Stories of our Favourite Carols from King’s College.

Galatians 3.19-22

The apostle Paul, having rebuked the insistence of some (Jewish believers) that the Gentile believers needed to be circumcised (males) and to follow dietary laws and their liturgical calendar, now takes on another question.

If the law can’t save, what is its purpose?

Galatians 3:19 (ESV) 19 Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary.

Christmas 2018

Christmas Edition – 2018

Any way you look at it, the Christmas story is extraordinary.  It tells us of a God who, in love, searches for the people he created and who have rebelled against him.  We know from Genesis 3.15 that this search will be fiercely resisted.  In Genesis 315 we read, I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”

Genesis then narrates the search for the seed crusher, the offspring of the woman.  Could it be Abraham, the recipient of God’s promise to bless his people?  No.  But how about Moses or David, two of the greatest figures in the OT?  No.

In Galatians 3:16 we read,16 Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ.

Finally, Jesus arrives in ignominy, born of a virgin in the small village of Bethlehem.  He is the seed or the offspring who will bring about the defeat of Satan, and sin itself – in due time. 

One more thing – what does it say about us, that God had to go to extraordinary means to bring about our salvation?  How might he accomplish this task, and how can he possibly overcome our own innate sinfulness?  If you see a drowning taking place, you don’t just yell instructions on swimming, and you don’t simply shout good advice.  No, someone has to jump in and rescue the drowning victim.  That is a simple picture of God’s deliverance of us through Jesus Christ.  Yet – even this picture underplays the nature of our dilemma – since we dead in sin.

Jim Basinger, Rector

Parish News: 

Confirmation – If you are interested in being confirmed, Bishop Daniel Morse will visit us on March 3.

Let me know.

Loudoun Hunger Relief

Collection boxes are near the front doors every Sunday available for donations to Loudoun Hunger Relief (located in Leesburg, Virginia) serving Loudoun County Residents.

Donated items include non-perishable food, hygiene products such as toothpaste and soap; paper towels, household goods and cleaners; items you buy at the store to maintain your house.  Money donations are also welcome. Checks can be made to Loudoun Hunger Relief.

Needlepoint Class

REC Missions
On January 13, the Rev. Bob Gresser, will join us as our preacher.  Bob is a Ph.D. student in Biblical Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary.  He has served for two summers (2016 and 2017) at the Evangelical Theological College in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.  He and his family plan to move to Zomba, Malawi for four months in preparation for a possible long-term assignment after he finishes his Ph.D.  Their hope for departure will be March of 2019.

Pledges for 2019

Please return pledges as soon as possible.  We also need more people to pledge an additional $100 per month for the building Fund.

Newsletter – August 2018


The Church of Our Saviour 
   Homecoming Edition

Home Coming Edition 

On Sunday, August 21, 1878, the Church of Our Saviour was consecrated; and on Sunday, August 19, 2018, we will renew our commitment to serve the Lord.  We look forward to a wonderful time of worship, blessing, dedication and fellowship.  We will gather to worship the Lord ‘in the beauty of holiness,’ we will ask the Lord’s blessing on our Parish to continue effectively proclaiming and living out the Good News of the Gospel, and we will dedicate our Stained Glass Window, given in memory of our former rector, Elijah B. White III.  In addition, we will enjoy the fellowship of all who gather, and we look forward to meeting again with former members of The Church Of Our Saviour at this Homecoming Sunday. 

We also look forward to having our bishop, the Rt. Revd’ Daniel Morse, with us.  He will lead us in worship.

There will be just one service on Sunday, August 19 – at 9.30.  Please join us.

Jim Basinger, Rector


Parish News: 

We are happy to report that the Pulpit Bible has been wonderfully restored, the new Plantation Shutters have been installed, and work continues on the Columbarium, and additional air conditioning is being installed in the Farmhouse.  Earlier in the spring, the water damage in the basement has been repaired and the Nursery has been redone.  Thanks to the entire Baxter family (Ralph, Melodie, Chad and Kailey – and Criselda Bell) for completing this project.

What is so Special About the Church?

It seemed appropriate to include in this newsletter excerpts from a very helpful book on the church.  The book is entitled Why Bother With the Church by Sam Alberry.

“Just as the U.S. embassy in London is considered a part of U.S. sovereign territory overseas in a foreign land, so the local church is a small part of heavenly territory in this world.

People don’t enter a church; the church enters a building.

The church depends on the truth. But there is also a way in which God’s truth depends on the church: not that the church approves or decides on what the truth is, but that the church is the means by which God’s truth reaches into his world. The church is the earthly outlet for God’s truth, the embassy that represents him.

The day of Jesus’s return will be a wedding feast—and Christians are invited to it not as guests, but as a bride. None of us will have to sneak into heaven through the back door—we’ll be walking up the aisle.

If you want to understand how committed Jesus is to the church, here’s your answer. He doesn’t just create it and let it be. He marries it. . . . Church is not his hobby; it is his marriage.

The membership of every local church is no accident; it is by divine design. There is no one there who is a spare part, a third foot, or second nose. There is no one there who is not necessary, or who doesn’t need the rest of their church.

If the church is worth Christ’s blood, then it is certainly worth its leaders’ labor.

We want to be in a church with small groups, not a church of small groups. The main center of church life is the whole gathering, not the small groupings.

The very things that make church hard work are often the things that make it great.

The only perfect church is the heavenly assembly, and this does not meet at 10:30 a.m. each Sunday a short drive from your house. So until you’re called to join the throng around God’s throne, you’re called to belong to a church in which others will get things wrong—and so will you.

Church is not for your entertainment, as a consumer, but for you and others to find encouragement, as a contributor.

It is almost impossible to overstate the positive impact we can have on others if we are coming [to church] looking for ways in which to be an encouragement.

Are we praying regularly for our church? The answer to that question is a good indication of whether we’re coming as Christians, or as consumers.

You need a church, and there’s a church out there that needs you.

All the church is and does cannot be ultimately accounted for by the usual measurements of this world.”