Nine Lessons and Carols

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Nine Lessons and Carols
church choir singing by candlelight
A service of Nine Lessons in 2010 at St. George's School, Rhode Island, US
GenreReligious service/Anglican church music
VenueChristian churches worldwide, notably King's College Chapel, Cambridge
Inaugurated24 December 1880 (1880-12-24)
FounderEdward White Benson

Nine Lessons and Carols, also known as the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols and Service of Nine Lessons and Carols, is a service of Christian worship traditionally celebrated on or near Christmas Eve. The story of the fall of humanity, the promise of the Messiah, and the birth of Jesus is told in nine short Bible readings or lessons from Genesis, the prophetic books and the Gospels, interspersed with the singing of Christmas carols, hymns and choir anthems.


Edward White Benson, credited with devising the service of Nine Lessons and Carols in 1880
Order of Service for the first Nine Lessons and Carols in 1880 on display in Truro Cathedral

Although the tradition of Nine Lessons and Carols is popularly associated with King's College, Cambridge, its origins are attributed to Truro Cathedral in Cornwall. Up to the late 19th century, the singing of Christmas carols was normally performed by singers visiting people's houses, and carols — generally considered to be secular in content — had been excluded from Christian worship. In the Victorian era, the rising popularity of hymnody encouraged church musicians to introduce carols into worship. An 1875 book of carols, Carols for Use in Church During Christmas and Epiphany by Richard Chope and Sabine Baring-Gould, was an influential publication. At around this time, the composer and organist John Stainer was compiling a collection, Christmas Carols New and Old, and during Christmas 1878 he introduced carols into the service of Choral Evensong at St Paul's Cathedral in London.[1] Other cathedrals also began to adopt carols at Christmastide that year and the Royal Cornwall Gazette reported that the choir of Truro Cathedral would sing a service of carols at 10:00 pm on Christmas Eve:

The Choir of the Cathedral will sing a number of carols in the Cathedral on Christmas Eve, the service commencing at 10pm. We understand that this is at the wish of many of the leading parishioners and others. A like service has been instituted in other cathedral and large towns, and has been much appreciated. It is the intention of the choir to no longer continue the custom of singing carols at the residences of members of the congregation.

— Royal Cornwall Gazette, 20 December 1878[2]

Two years later, the Right Rev. Edward White Benson, at that time Bishop of Truro, conducted the first formal service of "Nine Lessons and Carols" on Christmas Eve (24 December) 1880. Benson, concerned at the excessive consumption of alcohol in Cornish pubs during the festive season, sought a means of attracting revellers out of the pubs and into church by offering a religious celebration of Christmas. The idea for a service consisting of Christmas music interspersed with Bible readings was proposed by the succentor of the cathedral, the Rev. George Walpole (who later became Bishop of Edinburgh). The cathedral — a Victorian gothic building — was still under construction, and services were being held in a temporary wooden structure which served as a pro-cathedral. The first Nine Lessons and Carols service took place there at 10:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve and was attended by over 400 people.[3][4][5]

Benson's son, A. C. Benson, later recalled:

My father arranged from ancient sources a little services for Christmas Eve, nine carols and nine tiny lessons. They were read by various officers of the church, beginning with a chorister and ending, through different grades, with the bishop.

Bishop Benson was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1883, and the Nine Lessons service began to gain in popularity across the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion, as well as Roman Catholic churches in England and Wales. The original liturgy has since been adapted and used by other churches all over the world, particularly in English-speaking countries. Lessons and Carols most often occur in Anglican churches. However, numerous Christian denominations have adopted the service, or a variation of it, as part of their Christmas celebrations. In the UK, the service has become the standard format for school carol services.

In 1916, a service of Nine Lessons and Carols was held at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island; the institution celebrated the 100th anniversary of its Lessons and Carols in 2016.[7]

Notably in 1918, the Rev. Eric Milner-White the new dean of King's College, Cambridge, introduced the service to the college chapel, taking advantage of the established choral tradition of the Choir of King's College, Cambridge. It proved highly successful, and began an annual tradition — albeit with some alterations to Benson's original format from 1919 onwards. The BBC began to broadcast the service on the radio from 1928 and on television from 1954, establishing Carols from King's as the most popular and widely recognised presentation of the service.[8][4]

In North America, the Lessons and Carols tradition spread to other US and Canadian institutions. In 1928, organist and choirmaster Twining Lynes, introduced the service to Groton School in Groton, Massachusetts, after being inspired by services in England.[9]

In Canada, the Festival of Nine Lessons and carols is done multilingually at Bishop's College School, Quebec, with the nine lessons read in nine languages or dialects.

In December 2013, Truro Cathedral staged a reconstruction of Bishop Benson's original 1880 Nine Lessons with Carols Service which was attended by a congregation of over 1,500 people.[5]

Service at King's College, Cambridge[edit]

King's College Chapel, Cambridge (left), from where the popular Nine Lessons and Carols service is broadcast annually on Christmas Eve

The first Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King's College, Cambridge, was held on Christmas Eve in 1918. During World War I the dean, Eric Milner-White, had served as army chaplain in the 7th Infantry Division and he was concerned that the distress of the "Great War" had hardened attitudes against religion. Taking advantage of the established choral tradition of the Choir of King's College, Cambridge, he introduced Benson's carol service to King's as a means of attracting people back to Christian worship. The first Nine Lessons service in King's College Chapel was held on Christmas Eve, 1918, directed by Arthur Henry Mann who was the organist from 1876 to 1929.[10]

The King's College service was immensely successful, and the following year Milner-White made some changes to Benson's original format, notably introducing the tradition of opening the service with a solo treble singing "Once in Royal David's City". This was then followed by a bidding prayer penned by Milner-White himself, and re-ordering the lessons.[8][11][4] The choir had 16 trebles as specified in statutes laid down by Henry VI, and until 1927 the men's voices were provided by choral scholars and lay clerks. Today, 14 undergraduates from the choir sing the men's parts.[10]

The popularity of the service was established when the service began to be broadcast by the British Broadcasting Corporation in 1928, and, except for 1930, has been broadcast every year since. During the 1930s the service reached a worldwide audience when the BBC began broadcasting the service on its Overseas Service. Even throughout the Second World War, despite the stained glass having been removed from the chapel and the lack of heating, the broadcasts continued. For security reasons, the name "King's" was not mentioned during wartime broadcasts.[10]

Nine Lessons and Carols from King's College was first televised by BBC Television in 1954, conducted by the director of music, Boris Ord.[12][13]

Since the Second World War, it has been estimated that each year there are millions of listeners worldwide who listen to the service live on the BBC World Service. Domestically, the service is broadcast live on BBC Radio 4, and a recorded broadcast is made on Christmas Day on BBC Radio 3.[10] In the US, a 1954 service was put into the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress in 2008.[14] The broadcast has been heard live on public radio stations affiliated with American Public Media since 1979, and most stations broadcast a repeat on Christmas Day. Since 1963, the service has been periodically filmed for television broadcast in the UK.[15] Presently, each year a programme entitled Carols from King's is pre-recorded in early or mid-December then shown on Christmas Eve in the UK on BBC Two and BBC Four. The programme is weighted more heavily in favour of carols sung by the choir, with only seven readings in total, not all of which are from the Bible.

In 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the service was conducted, for the first time, without a congregation.[16][17] The service did not take place live, but instead a pre-recorded service produced by King's College was broadcast at the usual time.[18] It was the first time since 1930 that the service had not been broadcast live.

Order of service[edit]

The format of the first Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols did not differ substantially from the one known at King's College, Cambridge today. The order of the lessons was revised in 1919, and since that time the service has always begun with the hymn "Once in Royal David's City".[10] Today the first verse is sung unaccompanied by a solo boy chorister. To avoid putting him under undue stress, the chorister is not told that he will be singing the solo until immediately before the service is to begin.[19]

The Nine Lessons, which are the same every year, are read by representatives of the college and of the City of Cambridge from the 1611 Authorized King James Version of the Bible. The singing is divided into "carols" which are sung by the choir and "hymns" sung by the choir and congregation. Some services have also included anthems between the carols and hymns, such as a performance of "E'en So, Lord Jesus, Quickly Come" in 2004.[20] From 1982, Director of Music Stephen Cleobury commissioned a new carol each year on behalf of the college for the choir. The carols vary from year to year, although some music is repeated. The service ends with the hymn "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing". The following is from the service in 2008.[21]

  • Organ preludes
  • Carol: "If Ye would Hear the Angels Sing" – words by D. Greenwell; music by P. Tranchell
  • First Lesson from Genesis 3: 8–19 (read by a chorister)
  • Second Lesson from Genesis 22: 15–18 (read by a choral scholar)
  • Third Lesson from Isaiah 9: 2; 6–7 (read by a representative of Cambridge churches)
The fourth lesson employed John Tavener's choral arrangement "The Lamb" of William Blake's The Lamb from Blake's collection' Songs of Innocence and of Experience. This image represents copy C, object 8 of that original poem, currently held by the Library of Congress. The poem was published during 1794 and hand painted by Blake and his wife.[22]
  • Fourth Lesson from Isaiah 11: 1–3a; 4a; 6–9 (read by a representative of the City of Cambridge)
  • Sixth Lesson from Luke 2: 1; 3–7 (read by the Chaplain)
  • Seventh Lesson from Luke 2: 8–16 (read by the Director of Music)
  • Carol: "Illuminare Jerusalem" – words adapted from the Bannatyne manuscript in John and Winifred MacQueen, A Choice of Scottish Verse, 1470–1570 (1972); music by Judith Weir
  • Carol: "Glory, Alleluia to the Christ Child" – words, 17th century; music by A. Bullard

Commissioned carols and organ postludes[edit]

Year Titles Authors
1983 In Wintertime[citation needed]
(When Thou wast born in wintertime)
Words: Betty Askwith
Music: Lennox Berkeley
1984 One Star, at Last[citation needed]
(Fix on one star)
Words: George Mackay Brown
Music: Peter Maxwell Davies
1985 Illuminare Jerusalem[23] Words: adapted from the Bannatyne manuscript in John MacQueen; Winifred MacQueen (1972), A Choice of Scottish Verse, 1470–1570, London: Faber and Faber, ISBN 0-571-09532-1.
Music: Judith Weir
1986 Nowel, Nowel, Holly Dark[citation needed] Words: Walter de la Mare
Music: Richard Rodney Bennett
1987 What Sweeter Music Can We Bring[24] Words: Robert Herrick
Music: John Rutter
1988 The Birthday of thy King[citation needed]
(Awake, glad heart, get up, and sing!)
Words: After Henry Vaughan
Music: Peter Sculthorpe
1989 Carol of St. Steven[citation needed] Words: Adapted from W. Sandys' Christmas Carols
Music: Alexander Goehr
1990 Богородице Дево, радуйся[25]
(Rejoice, O Virgin Mary)
Words: the Orthodox Liturgy (in Russian)
Music: Arvo Pärt
1991 A Gathering[citation needed] Words: Lancelot Andrewes
Music: John Casken
1992 Swetë Jesu[citation needed] Words: Anonymous, 13th Century
Music: Nicholas Maw
1993 Christo Paremus Cantica[citation needed] Words: Anonymous, 15th Century
Music: Diana Burrell
1994 The Angels[citation needed]
(Should you hear them singing among stars)
Words: John V. Taylor
Music: Jonathan Harvey
1995 Seinte Marie Moder Milde[citation needed] Words: From a 13th-century manuscript in the Library of Trinity College, Cambridge
Music: James MacMillan
1996 Pilgrim Jesus[citation needed]
(Iesus! Christus! In the manger of my body)
Words: Kevin Crossley-Holland
Music: Stephen Paulus
1997 The Fayrfax Carol[26] Words: Early Tudor, anonymous
Music: Thomas Adès
1998 Winter Solstice Carol[27] English words and music: Giles Swayne
Latin words: Magnificat antiphon for Christmas Day
1999 On Christmas Day to My Heart[28] Words: Clement Paman
Music: Richard Rodney Bennett
2000 The Three Kings[29] Words: The Three Kings (1916) by Dorothy L. Sayers
Music: Jonathan Dove
2001 Spring in Winter[23] Words: C. Smart, from Hymn &c: The Nativity of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ
Music: John Woolrich
2002 The Angel Gabriel Descended to a Virgin[30] Words: 15th–17th century
Music: Robin Holloway
2003 The Gleam[31]
(Not yet shepherds the gilded kings)
Words: Stephen Plaice
Music: Harrison Birtwistle
2004 God would be born in thee[32][33]
(Lo, in the Silent Night a Child in God is Born)
Words: Angelus Silesius
Music: Judith Bingham
2005 Carol: Away in a Manger[24] Words: 19th century
Music: John Tavener
Organ postlude: Improvisation on "Adeste Fideles"[24] Francis Pott
2006 Carol: Misere' Nobis[34]
(Jesu of a Maiden Thou wast Born)
Words: a version of a medieval English carol
Music: Mark-Anthony Turnage
Organ postlude: Recessional on "In the Bleak Midwinter"[34] Lionel Steuart Fothringham
2007 Carol: Noël (Now comes the dawn)[25]
(Stardust and vaporous light)
Words: Richard Watson Gilder
Music: Brett Dean
Organ postlude: Sortie on "In Dulci Jubilo"[25] David Briggs
2008 Mary

(The Night when She First Gave Birth)[21]

Words: Bertolt Brecht, translated by Michael Hamburger
Music: Dominic Muldowney
2009 The Christ Child[35] Words: GK Chesterton
Music: Gabriel Jackson[36]
2010 Christmas Carol (Offerings they brought of gold) Words: Einojuhani Rautavaara, translated by Hanni-Mari & Christopher Latham
Music: Einojuhani Rautavaara[37]
2011 Christmas hath a darkness Words: Christina Rossetti
Music: Tansy Davies[38]
2012 Ring Out, Wild Bells Words: Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Music: Carl Vine[39]
2013 Hear the voice of the Bard Words: William Blake
Music: Thea Musgrave[40]
2014 De Virgine Maria Words: 12th-century Latin, translated by Ronald Knox
Music: Carl Rütti
2015 The Flight Words: George Szirtes
Music: Richard Causton[41]
2016 This Endernight Words: Anonymous c1400
Music: Michael Berkeley[42]
2017 Carol Eliseus Words: Welsh
Music: Huw Watkins[43]
2018 O Mercy Divine Words: Charles Wesley[44]
Music: Judith Weir[45]
2019 The Angel Gabriel Words: Sabine Baring-Gould
Music: Philip Moore[46]
2020 No new commission[47]
2021 There is no Rose Words: English, 15th Century
Music: Cecilia McDowall[48]
2022 Angelus ad Virginem Words: Latin, medieval
Music: Matthew Martin[49]

Attendance at the service[edit]

The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols held on Christmas Eve at King's College Chapel is open to the general public. The service is very popular, and some people start queuing the night before as demand for seats always exceeds the number available.[50]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Dibble 2017, p. 399.
  2. ^ "Christmas at the Cathedral". Royal Cornwall Gazette. Falmouth. 20 December 1878. Retrieved 18 August 2015.
  3. ^ Alex Webb (24 December 2001), "Choir that sings to the world", BBC News.
  4. ^ a b c Gray, Christopher (29 November 2013). "How Truro created Christmas musical history". The Guardian. Retrieved 9 May 2019.
  5. ^ a b "Nine Lessons and Carols".
  6. ^ "Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols". 16 December 2005.
  7. ^ "100th Annual Service of Lessons and Carols | Office of the Chaplains and Religious Life". Retrieved 4 October 2019.
  8. ^ a b McGrath, Alister E. (2006). Christianity: An Introduction. John Wiley & Sons. p. 293. ISBN 9781405108997.
  9. ^ "Spiritual Life at Groton". Groton School. Retrieved 4 October 2019.
  10. ^ a b c d e Nine lessons and carols: History of the service, King's College Chapel, retrieved 9 March 2008.
  11. ^ "In the Chapel: Carols". King's College Cambridge. Retrieved 4 October 2019.
  12. ^ Humphreys, Garry (20 May 2012). "The Choir of King's College, Cambridge made world-famous by Boris Ord". Retrieved 2 October 2019.
  13. ^ Coghlan, Alexandra (2016). Carols From King's. Random House. p. 168. ISBN 9781473530515. Retrieved 2 October 2019.
  14. ^ Metzler, Natasha (9 June 2009). "New National Recording Registry entries announced". Associated Press, San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 17 March 2017.
  15. ^ History of A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, King's College, Cambridge, retrieved 25 December 2010.
  16. ^ "Carols from King's". BBC. Retrieved 25 December 2020.
  17. ^ "Carols from King's to be sung in empty chapel for first time in a century". The Guardian. 29 November 2020. Retrieved 25 December 2020.
  18. ^ "Radio to broadcast recorded version of Christmas Eve service". King's College Cambridge. Retrieved 31 August 2021.
  19. ^ Peter Kingston (21 December 2007), "The world's greatest carol event", The Guardian (EducationGuardian).
  20. ^ "A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols 2004". King's College, Cambridge. University of Cambridge. Archived from the original on 24 October 2014. Retrieved 3 November 2014.
  21. ^ a b A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, Christmas Eve, 2008 (PDF), Provost and Fellows of King's College, Cambridge, 24 December 2008, archived from the original (PDF) on 5 November 2010, retrieved 25 December 2008. For the songs sung in earlier years, see "List of carols performed at the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King's College Chapel, Cambridge".
  22. ^ Morris Eaves; Robert N. Essick; Joseph Viscomi (eds.). "Songs of Innocence and of Experience, copy C, object 9 (Bentley 8, Erdman 8, Keynes 8) "The Lamb"". William Blake Archive. Retrieved 26 September 2013.
  23. ^ a b Nine Lessons and Carols 2001, Provost and Fellows of King's College, Cambridge, 2001, archived from the original on 9 December 2007, retrieved 1 January 2008.
  24. ^ a b c A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, Christmas Eve, 2005 (PDF), Provost and Fellows of King's College, Cambridge, 24 December 2005, archived from the original (PDF) on 11 December 2006, retrieved 1 January 2008.
  25. ^ a b c A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, Christmas Eve, 2007 (PDF), Provost and Fellows of King's College, Cambridge, 24 December 2007, archived from the original (PDF) on 7 June 2011, retrieved 24 December 2007.
  26. ^ Nine Lessons and Carols 1997, Provost and Fellows of King's College, Cambridge, 1997, archived from the original on 28 September 2006, retrieved 1 January 2008.
  27. ^ Nine Lessons and Carols 1998, Provost and Fellows of King's College, Cambridge, 1998, archived from the original on 13 August 2007, retrieved 1 January 2008.
  28. ^ Nine Lessons and Carols 1999, Provost and Fellows of King's College, Cambridge, 1999, archived from the original on 16 December 2007, retrieved 1 January 2008.
  29. ^ Nine Lessons and Carols 2000, Provost and Fellows of King's College, Cambridge, 2000, archived from the original on 8 August 2007, retrieved 1 January 2008.
  30. ^ Nine Lessons and Carols 2002, Provost and Fellows of King's College, Cambridge, 2002, archived from the original on 17 November 2007, retrieved 1 January 2008.
  31. ^ Nine Lessons and Carols 2003, King's College Chapel, Cambridge, 2003, archived from the original on 25 December 2007, retrieved 1 January 2008.
  32. ^ Nine Lessons and Carols 2004, Provost and Fellows of King's College, Cambridge, 2004, archived from the original on 17 January 2008, retrieved 1 January 2008.
  33. ^ In addition, a carol entitled Starry Night O'er Bethlehem with words by Anne Willcocks and music by David Willcocks was also specially written for the service.
  34. ^ a b A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, Christmas Eve, 2006 (PDF), Provost and Fellows of King's College, Cambridge, 24 December 2006, archived from the original (PDF) on 4 February 2007, retrieved 1 January 2008.
  35. ^ OUP Choral News E-mail October 2009, 9 October 2009.
  36. ^ Oxford Music Now (PDF), Oxford University Press, Spring 2009, p. 5, archived from the original (PDF) on 26 July 2011, retrieved 16 May 2009.
  37. ^ Boosey & Hawkes - Performance Calendar, retrieved 24 October 2010.
  38. ^ A Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols, Order of Service, 2011 (PDF), archived from the original (PDF) on 31 January 2012, retrieved 25 December 2011.
  39. ^ A Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols, Order of Service, 2012 (PDF), archived from the original (PDF) on 16 January 2013, retrieved 27 December 2012.
  40. ^ Commissioned carol sets Blake poem to music, retrieved 5 December 2013.
  41. ^ Richard Causton composes 2015 commissioned carol, retrieved 29 November 2015.
  42. ^ Michael Berkeley composes Christmas commissioned carol, retrieved 19 November 2016.
  43. ^ New Christmas Eve carol announced, retrieved 9 December 2017[permanent dead link].
  44. ^[permanent dead link] December 2018
  45. ^ "News".
  46. ^ "King's commissions a new carol for Christmas Eve".
  47. ^ Interview with Daniel Hyde > 'The Irregular Christmas'; BBC Music Magazine, Christmas 2020, p 35
  48. ^ "King's announces commissioned carol for Christmas Eve".
  49. ^ "Christmas Religious Programming on the BBC 2022". Retrieved 29 November 2022.
  50. ^ Hallows, Neil (22 December 2006). "Queuing for King's". BBC News. Retrieved 5 October 2019.


Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]