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Nine Lessons and Carols

by Benedicta Cipolla

Since 1918, every Christmas Eve in England hundreds of people wait for hours in cold temperatures outside King’s College Chapel at the University of Cambridge for a coveted seat at the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.

The millions of listeners around the world who tune in via short wave, FM and the Internet, unable to reach Cambridge’s 16th-century vaulted church or unwilling to risk frostbite, can now follow the annual radio broadcast with a new, illustrated book detailing the service.

THE FESTIVAL OF NINE LESSONS AND CAROLS (published in November by Universe, a division of Rizzoli, and designed by David Larkin) includes background on the tradition’s beginnings; texts of the prayers, nine Scripture readings, and carols most often sung from year to year; splendid photographs, paintings and engravings; and a CD recording of the service.

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For the book’s author and editor, William Edwards, the volume represents a very personal labor of love.

“What people want for Christmas is something they can take out every year and read along while playing the music,” says Edwards, a former retail entrepreneur and bookstore executive. “I also wanted to capture the emotional impact the service has on me and I think it has on other people.”

Calling himself a “lapsed Congregationalist,” Edwards is moved each year by the overarching message of the service that he describes in the book as “the romantic and religious antithesis of the modern world.”

“This is a service about the birth of a child and about the birth of hope,” he says, pointing to the initial choice 86 years ago to lead the entrance procession with a solo chorister singing the first stanza of the nineteenth-century Victorian hymn, “Once in Royal David’s City.” “It stands for an innocence we all want to get back to.”

When the service of readings, prayers, and carols debuted in Cambridge not even two months after the end of World War I, Britain and Europe as a whole were reeling from the conflict’s devastation. Eric Milner-White, the dean of King’s College and architect of the program, which was modeled on an earlier service in Cornwall, had served as an army chaplain for four years. In 1919, he added to the service the Bidding Prayer, which spoke poignantly to the millions of Britons who had lost loved ones in the war with its evocation of “all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore and in a greater light, that multitude which none can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh.”

“It’s true to say that the 1918 service was so developed in the aftermath of terrific suffering and huge casualties referred to in the Bidding Prayer,” says Stephen Cleobury, the music director at King’s College, who recently led the choir on a U.S. tour. “The sad fact is that the two great world wars of the 20th century prove not to have been the end of strife in the world, and the story of the birth of a young and innocent child in a troubled world, as it was then and is now, gives some new and fresh hope.”

Since 1979, when public radio began broadcasting the Lessons and Carols service in the United States, Edwards has listened to it live every Christmas Eve morning. Last year, he and his wife finally made the trip to King’s College Chapel in person. “It was everything I expected. In my mind I had always visualized it the way it was. You’re sitting there, and you’re saying, ‘This is somewhere I have wanted to be for 30 years.’ I’ll never forget it.”

Part of the indelible memory, says Edwards, comes from the service’s timing, held at 3:00 PM, just before the light begins to fade from the sky.

“What happens is you watch the light go out of the [stained] glass. What you see is first the yellow goes, then the red, then the green. The last color you can really see is blue. It really becomes a visual experience. By the end it’s fully dark outside, and everything in the chapel is candlelit.”

Twenty-five years ago, Nicholas Nash, then programming director at Minnesota Public Radio (MPR), collaborated with National Public Radio and the BBC to bring Lessons and Carols to an American audience, despite hearing a “litany of rationalizations why this was not worthwhile.”

The rationalizations proved irrational, judging from the thankful calls and letters that followed that first broadcast, and Nash’s brainchild has only grown in popularity with each passing year, helping to spawn countless Lessons and Carols services at churches throughout the U.S.

“I thought it might be a one-off,” says Nash, who left MPR in 1985, “but I hoped if it could find fertile ground it could grow deep roots, and it seems to have.”

For Nash, who hosts 40 people every Christmas Eve morning for breakfast and the service’s broadcast, live radio possesses a connective power unmatched by any other medium.

Back in 1979, he says, “the country was ripe for something live that linked different parts of the world together … I believe there is something inherently important about people understanding they’re part of an immensely wide congregation participating at the same time.”

By its nature, radio allows for the service’s contemplative aspect to reach listeners thousands of miles away. “There is something about radio that forces you to concentrate,” Nash says. “You are forced to focus, something we don’t do very much these days … It’s the one time in the Christmas season when [people] can actually stop and pause and reflect, and then they can put up with the hurly-burly that follows.”

This year, Bill Edwards is following Nash’s lead by inviting 30 people to his house on Long Island for a Lessons and Carols sing-along to the live radio broadcast at 10 AM, followed by a festive luncheon.

“Instead of going out buying gifts at the last minute that you don’t really want or need, Christmas Eve becomes more about Christmas,” he says.

Benedicta Cipolla is a writer in New York City.