Carols at King’s. It brings to mind candlelit processions, the affecting solo voice opening O Little Town of Bethlehem, readings about the birth of Jesus and families crowding around the TV on Christmas Eve.
All of these are integral to the traditional service of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge, broadcast every year by the BBC on that special day.
However, the Nine Lessons and Carols didn’t begin at King’s after the First World War as many people believe, but in Truro in 1880 … and one of the reasons was to keep Truronians out of the city’s pubs.
It was the invention of the first Bishop of Truro for 900 years, Edward Benson. He devised it not only as a celebration of Christmas, but as a way of deepening the worshipper’s response to and understanding of the meaning of Christmas.
It was also started to stop people spending too much time in Truro’s pubs during the festive period.
In 1878, the West Briton announced: “The choir of the cathedral will sing a number of carols in the cathedral tomorrow evening [Christmas Eve]”.
This was not the first time that the cathedral choir had led the Christmas worship of the people of Truro.
The choir had, for some time, sung carols from house to house, but the Rev Walpole (newly installed as Succentor) was keen to translate this practice into a service. In consultation with Benson, it was planned for a carol service to be held at 10 o’clock in the temporary wooden structure that was serving as the cathedral, as the grand structure we now know was being constructed.
It was partly organised to keep people from spending too much time in the public houses of Truro.
The success of this led Benson, two years later, to seize the opportunity to teach the true story of Christmas to his parishioners as was his first love.
A West Briton article of 1880 reported: “The usual festal service is to be held, but this time a pamphlet with the order of service is to be issued.”
This order of service – the original copy still exists with annotations in Benson’s own handwriting – was the first ever Nine Lessons with Carols.
At the heart of the service is the Christmas story, told through a series of lessons, taken from the biblical books of Genesis, Numbers, Isaiah, Micah, St Luke, St John, and Galatians.
Benson’s clear instructions are that these are to be read by members of the cathedral, starting with a senior chorister and rising to the Bishop himself.
Carols were conducted by the Rev Walpole and the organ (which, in part, remains in St Mary’s Aisle in the cathedral today) was played by William Mitchell. The music included three movements from Handel’s Messiah and four carols from a new carol anthology, Christmas Carols Old and New, edited by Bramley and Stainer.
The congregation was expected to join in the singing of the hymns O Come, All Ye Faithful and Bethlehem! Of Noblest Cities (the latter a Latin hymn in a translation favoured by Benson not appearing in contemporary hymn books) and in the choruses of two carols led by the cathedral choir, one of which was the popular The First Nowell.
Following the famous Hallelujah Chorus, a version of Magnificat was chanted and Benson, satisfied that the Christmas story had been faithfully recounted, blessed the congregation – who numbered in excess of 400 people – and they returned to their homes.
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On Tuesday, December 17 2013, Truro Cathedral reconstructed its original Nine Lessons service from Christmas Eve 1880 as faithfully as possible.
This year’s Nine Lessons and Carols takes place in the cathedral on Wednesday, December 23 between 7pm and 8pm.
There will be social distancing in place so there will be limited capacity. Tickets will be released in two phases, the first release on Monday, December 7 at 9am and the second on Friday, December 11 at 6pm via this link