Lessons from Lessons and Carols

Tuning into ‘Calm Radio’ is an interesting packaged experience as a pre-selected array of music, categorized by style and era, is presented to produce a particular emotional state of being. I tried the “early baroque” and it was sufficiently numbing to fit the ‘calming’ prescription. But what is the music we listen to supposed to do to us, especially the omnipresent “holiday music” some of us have had to listen to since the beginning of November? Are we to be anesthetized, inspired, entertained, annoyed at the increasingly narrow and consumerist focus and delivery? Are we to be confirmed in faith, sit in awe at the incredible beauty of some compositions, or challenged? I have done fairly well in my determination not to do Christmas music until this, the third week of Advent, and it started with music that turned a number of things upside down, in, of all places, Christmas Lessons and Carols.

The “service” of Lessons and Carols, often known formally as a “Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols”, is an Anglican invention that traces a portion of salvation history in nine scripture readings interspersed with carols (choir) and hymns (congregation). It seems to find its origins in an 1878 Cornwall shift of moving carol singing indoors – from a primarily secular activity of carollers wandering from place to place (in hopes of a bit of change or wassail) to the church. The shape of the service was in place by 1880 at the Cathedral in Truro, deliberately researched by the Dean to follow the shape of a medieval office of readings. But only in 1918, with its adoption as the Christmas Eve service at King’s College, Cambridge, did it attract attention. The intention at King’s was evangelism – to lure war-weary agnostics back to church with beautiful music, familiar hymns, and a bit of catechesis. In 1928 BBC began its annual broadcast of the slightly reworked pattern now known the world over. Many of the elements seem locked in place; the boy chorister solo of the first verse of “Once in Royal David’s City”, the use of the 1611 King James Bible for all the scripture readings, the progression of readers from least to greatest, the use of the bidding prayer written by Eric Milner-White, and the fairly fixed order of hymns throughout. But in 1982 King’s Chapel made a decision that every year the service would include a newly-commissioned carol for the choir to sing – adding a new and often surprising element to the seemingly fixed repertoire.

Besides this addition of new music, since the early 20th century a number of things have changed from the context in which Lessons and Carols was born. First, the ecumenical movement means that the service has been borrowed and adapted to other traditions, taking on different cultural and ritual patterns. Second, the ecumenical liturgical movement meant that many Anglican parishes and cathedrals returned to the longer tradition of an earlier vigil mass for Christmas (often the “family service”) and midnight mass, sometimes even at midnight! Lastly, the insatiable retail-driven shift in the Christmas season (beginning about Halloween and ending on December 24th) means that “Christmas Lessons and Carols” is not done in Christmas but often at the very beginning of Advent (in spite of the creation of a parallel Advent Lessons and Carols). As these changes themselves become set in stone, the service is often presented as a slavish imitation of King’s College, Cambridge, albeit often without the talented choristers or elegant readers, and spoken of in hushed terms that have convinced more than one attendee that this is indeed an early church tradition they are witnessing.

The point of this historical review of the “Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols” is to arrive at this week, the third of Advent in 2019, and another round of Christmas Lessons and Carols. Unlike many parish productions, this one (St. Mark’s, Berkeley, California) was beautiful. The large choir was well rehearsed, and the challenging carols were not beyond their musical abilities. The readers read well and the minimal ceremony was not distracting. The church was full, and in Berkeley, California, one might guess that many were not regular church goers – anywhere – and that this might very well be ‘it’ as far as engagements with religion in the Advent-Christmas seasons. Those around me, after having the hymnals pointed out and re-distributed, sang lustily, clearly an unusual activity for many. But it was ‘that’ carol, the new one, through which the whole experience was reshaped. The carol in question was the new carol at King’s College for 2015, poem by George Szirtes and music by Richard Causton, titled “The Flight.” Of its 2015 premiere, the blogger 5against4 said of Causton’s search for an appropriate text: “Causton’s typically thoughtful response reached far out beyond the narrow, preserved-in-aspic confines of the rest of the service, striking a contextually as well as musically dissonant chord by being informed at its core by the upheavals facing contemporary society.” Causton himself wrote that as he struggled to find a text, he “had a growing sense that at this precise moment it is perverse to be writing a piece about a child born in poverty, away from home and forced to flee with his parents, without in any way paying reference to the appalling refugee crisis that is unfolding.” The result is for “believers and unbelievers alike…a kind of engagement with the real world that makes for a powerful parallel with the traditional Christmas narrative.”(5against4.com/2015/12/26) The text is a series of hard-hitting verses interspersed with the refrain “May those who travel light find shelter on the flight. May Bethlehem give rest to them.” The voicing and aurality created visual reminders of photos in many newspapers: “The sea is a graveyard, the beach is dry bones, the child at the station is pelted with stones…” and an eerie soprano line sounds hauntingly like a child’s cry (“you won’t hear our voices once we’re in the dark…”).

Those seated around me at the service struggled to sing the hymn that followed, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” (thankfully set to the English tune of Forest Green). We were collectively overcome with the reality of reality – the appalling images of the US/Mexico border, Syrian refugees, Rohingya refugees, and many others, particularly as we sang the often-missing 5th verse: “Where misery cries out to Thee, son of the Mother mild; where Charity stands watching and Faith holds wide the door…”

What is the music we listen to supposed to do to us? We perhaps all vent our anger at the commercialization of Christmas around us – a season co-opted by the retail world. But just as insidious and destructive is the saccharine and fuzzy sense of a cute and harmless infant removed in time and space from reality – an image not central to Christian theology but at the centre of many of the texts we sing (and images upon which we gaze). We were challenged at this week’s lessons and carols to face up to the present reality of human disaster and God’s graciousness meeting today, not long ago and far away, but here and now. Listen for yourself: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tUTdYvDGtDk. (with thanks to George Emblom, St. Mark’s music director, and Betsy Hada for the 5against4 reference)


  1. My college (The University of the South, aka Sewanee) was the place I first encountered Lessons and Carols, back in the early 80s. There were four “performances” that drew SRO crowds from all over middle Tennessee. Since then I have seen it spread all over the place, including a packed-house event at the Jesuit university where I teach. This year I participated in one at our cathedral, presided over by the Archbishop of Baltimore. Not quite a packed house, but the cathedral is a pretty vast building.

    I spotted a colleague in the audience/congregation who I know has only the loosest attachment to Christianity, singing along enthusiastically with her husband. Though I have my liturgical qualms about anticipating Christmas during Advent, I do think that L&C serves an evangelistic purpose and was glad to see my colleague marking the feast of the Incarnation in some way. So despite its recent vintage and its anomalous presence in Advent, I’m all in favor of the Church providing these sorts of ways of making itself present in people’s lives during the secular “Christmas season.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.