King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, England, has hosted Lessons and Carols since 1918. Originally introduced into the lives of British people to make holiday worship more vibrant, it’s been broadcast every year around Christmas time since 1928.
This long-standing tradition has reached far outside the boundaries of the United Kingdom. For decades, this service has been open to approximately 500 people on a first come, first served queue the afternoon of the service, but this year that has changed to a ticket system because of safety concerns.
Lessons and Carols is a beautiful Christmas Eve traditional service of Bible readings, old favorite Christmas carols, and a new carol. More than 100 years of Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve make this a tradition worth adding to your life.
How to Watch Lessons and Carols This Year
This service is built around the idea that marrying music and the Bible’s story of the Nativity creates the perfect combination for Christmas Eve, and this idea is correct. It’s impossible to not appreciate the skillful musicians who have for generations honed their skills for this special night.
Those of us whose churches offer Christmas Eve services can participate in the King’s College service after it airs, and those of us whose churches don’t can join online live. If you’re watching the service live, or streaming it later, make sure to also download the free program. The program includes an extensive run-down of the history of the service, including the revisions to the program, with fascinating notes such as:
C. Benson [son of the original program author] 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, beginning with a chorister, and ending, through the different grades, with the Bishop’. The idea had come from G. H. S. Walpole, later Bishop of Edinburgh. Almost immediately other churches adapted the service for their own use. A wider fame began to grow when the service was first broadcast in 1928 and, with the exception of 1930, it has been broadcast annually, even during the Second World War, when the ancient glass (and also all heat) had been removed from the Chapel.
Something Old and Something New
Lessons and Carols opens every year with the same carol. “Once in David’s Royal City” has always been the beginning of the service, and the lyrics briefly and simply tell the story of the birth of Jesus and why he came as a baby to Bethlehem so many years ago. In 1982 Stephen Cleobury took over planning the service and decided to commission a new carol yearly to make sure the service both stayed fresh and maintained its traditional status.
King’s College maintains a list of the new carols, with background information on the composers and songs available here. Longtime fans of the service eagerly wait to hear what the new carol will be. While the carols change yearly, the lessons or readings and prayers are the same year to year, with few to no changes.
A Perfect Service for the Season
Lessons and Carols perfectly sets the tone for Christmas Eve, then Christmas Day. Beautiful music and timely lessons make for a lovely background to family celebrations. Lessons and Carols is both timely and timeless, perfectly embodying the season’s joy and emotion.
Lessons and Carols has survived wars, including both World Wars, depressions, and other huge changes in the British Empire. During the Second World War, the church had no heat and all of the stained glass had been removed to protect it from German shelling. The service still went on, as well as its broadcast. It’s a celebration of the endurance of the human spirit in maintaining good and faithful traditions.
Lessons and Carols may have started as a service planned and executed in one church, but has grown and is now used worldwide in many church bodies. This is another part of the beauty of the service. The adaptability and flexibility of its liturgy makes it a useful framework for holiday worship for Christians worldwide as they come together to celebrate the savior’s birth on Christmas.
The annual broadcast of the King’s College Lessons and Carols is perfect to enjoy with your whole family. It’s possible to close your eyes and feel a sense of unity with all of the generations of people who have gone before us, listening to the same service on the same night. Whether it’s your first time enjoying the service, or the 101st, the familiarity and joy is the same.
Come, rejoice, for Jesus is coming! Come, celebrate the reason for the season!