An Imaginative Festival of Lessons and Carols

A yearly Christmas pleasure is King’s College at Cambridge’s famous Festival of Lessons and Carols […]

Matt Schneider / 12.8.14

A yearly Christmas pleasure is King’s College at Cambridge’s famous Festival of Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve, nine lessons and nine carols with a beautiful choir and traditional music. For those who just can’t wait, here’s a bit of the rationale of the King’s College service, followed by an Mbird-friendly, fresh and down-to-earth spinoff to tide you over:


The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols was first held on Christmas Eve 1918. It was planned by Eric Milner-White, who, at the age of thirty-four, had just been appointed Dean of King’s after experience as an army chaplain which had convinced him that the Church of England needed more imaginative worship. … A revision of the Order of Service was made in 1919, involving rearrangement of the lessons, and from that date the service has always begun with the hymn ‘Once in royal David’s city’. In almost every year the choice of carols has varied, and some new ones have been introduced by successive Organists. …

A. C. Benson recalled: ‘My father arranged from ancient sources a little service for Christmas Eve – nine carols and nine tiny lessons, which were read by various officers of the Church. … From time to time the College receives copies of services held, for example, in the West Indies or the Far East and these show how widely the tradition has spread. … Wherever the service is heard and however it is adapted, whether the music is provided by choir or congregation, the pattern and strength of the service, as Dean Milner-White pointed out, derive from the lessons and not the music. ‘The main theme is the development of the loving purposes of God …’ seen ‘through the windows and the words of the Bible’. Local interests appear … and personal circumstances give point to different parts of the service.

King’s College Chapel

Once in Royal David’s City by Sufjan Stevens

For that Child, so dear and gentle, Is our Lord in heaven above; And he leads his children on to the place where he is gone.

Bidding Prayer

Let us read and mark in Holy Scripture the tale of the loving purposes of God from the first days of our disobedience unto the glorious Redemption brought us by this Holy Child. … The Almighty God bless us with his grace: Christ give us the joys of everlasting life: and unto the fellowship of the citizens above may the King of Angels bring us all. Amen.

 Messiah by Bifrost Arts

Oh come, oh come Messiah/Oh come our Alleluia/Oh sing, oh sing Hosanna/Oh come, Messiah, come!/Comfort and joy, Alpha, Omega, He/Sorrow and toil, no longer rulers be.

A Reading from Genesis, Chapter Three

And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden.

The Devil Is All Around by Shovels & Rope

When the devil is all around and got you crawling on the ground/On your hands and your knees with an apple in your mouth/You will know how far you’ll go to make your peace with god.

A Reading from the Gospel according to Luke, Chapter One

And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David.

Timshel by Mumford and Sons

And you are the mother/The mother of your baby child/The one to whom you gave life/And you have your choices/And these are what make man great/His ladder to the stars.

A Reading from the Gospel according Luke, Chapter Two

And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

Jesus Is Born by Rain for Roots

Who was there when time began?/Who came to earth to live as man?/Whose cradle was a cattle stall? /Who is the greatest gift of all?

A Reading from the Gospel according to Luke, Chapter Two

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence by High Street Hymns

Ponder nothing earthly minded/for with blessing in his hand/Christ our God to earth descendeth/our full homage to demand.

A Reading from the Gospel according to Matthew, Chapter Two

And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.

Hallelujah by Cloverton

A star shown bright up in the east/To Bethlehem, the wise men three/Came many miles and journeyed long for You/And to the place at which You were/Their frankincense and gold and myrrh/They gave to You and cried out/Hallelujah.

A Reading from the Gospel according to John, Chapter One

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

Silent Night by Sam Bush and Kathryn Caine

Son of God, love’s pure light/Radiant beams from thy holy face/With the dawn of redeeming grace.

Closing Prayer

Oh God, who makest us glad with the yearly remembrance of the birth of thy only son, Jesus Christ: Grant that as we joyfully receive him for our redeemer, so we may with sure confidence behold him, when he shall come to be our judge; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.

Christmas Unicorn by Sufjan Stevens

Oh I’m a Christian holiday/I’m a symbol of original sin/I’ve a pagan tree and magical wreath/And a bowtie on my chin. … It’s all right, I love you.

Wood engraving by Fritz Eichenberg, Christmas 1954.