The origins of Nine Lessons and Carols

Royal Cornwall Gazette
20th December 1878

In the late 1870s the Bishop of Truro, Edward White Benson, was discouraged at the high level of drunkenness and the lack of safety in the streets in Truro at Christmas time. He wished to counterbalance the night revelling with something more appropriate to the season. The Cathedral Succentor, George Walpole (later Bishop of Edinburgh) suggested an act of worship for late Christmas Eve. In fact the choir had already been gathering to sing carols in the, temporary wooden, cathedral at 10pm on Christmas Eve. Walpole’s suggestion was to develop this idea.

Benson’s son, Arthur (later master of Magdalene College, Cambridge), commented ‘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.’ And so on Christmas Eve 1880 at 10pm in the wooden temporary building in Truro the First Service of Nine Lessons and Carols was held. The idea rapidly spread, not least following Benson’s appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury.

An extract from the 1918 Order of Service at King’s

In 1918 Eric Milner-White, newly returned to King’s College, Cambridge as Dean, following service in the war as an army chaplain. He adapted Benson’s service for use in the college chapel. He also built on an already surviving custom described by M. R James. James (Provost of King’s from 1905 to 1918), tells of how on Christmas Eve the College Choir processed softly into chapel on Christmas Eve singing Once in Royal David’s City  as an introduction to Evensong.

Milner White’s service took Benson’s order and emphasised the liturgical progress, the main theme being, he wrote, ‘The development of the loving purpose of God from the Creation to the Incarnation… the scriptures, not the carols, are the backbone.’ Milner White’s words in the service have a beauty and resonance often lacking in liturgical composition of today.

Click here to see the 1918 Kings order complete The order of readings is significantly different with the reading from St John’s Gospel earlier in the service, and the service reaches a climax with the singing of the Magnificat (in an old metrical vversiopn).

And so in 1918 the annual service from King’s began and a year later the service opened, as it still does there, with a solo voice singing the first verse of Once in Royal David’s City. Somewhat alarmingly, perhaps, the child to start the service was not chosen until the moment the BBC announcer introduced the service. The service was first broadcast in 1928 and since then, with the exception of 1930, has been broadcast each year.

The service has stood the test of time and,  sometimes in different forms and emphases according to circumstances, it is now found throughout the world. Today, as at St Chrysostom’s, Carol Services are often among the best attended of acts of worship.

Bishop Benson’s small step in 1880 to address a social evil in his Cathedral city was to grow in ways he would probably never have imagined. His innovative example offers an interesting challenge to bishops faced with social problems today.

For a look at the history of the Carol Service at St Chrysostom’s click here.


About stchrysostoms

St Chrysostom’s is an Anglican (Church of England) parish church in Manchester, UK. We’re an inclusive, diverse and welcoming faith community rejoicing in our Anglo Catholic tradition, where people of many differing backgrounds make friends. Find our Facebook group at
This entry was posted in Anglican, Choral Evensong and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The origins of Nine Lessons and Carols

  1. Robert Fox says:

    Just to add to the story – when Benson became Archbishop he spent his weekends at Addington Palace on the outskirts of Croydon on the southern edge of London, one of the 6 Victorian archbishops who contributed to the life of the (my) parish church of St. Mary the Blessed Virgin, Addington. ( ) including introducing 9 L&C. We believe we were the first *PARISH* church to use the service. A good few years ago we found an undated (believed Victorian) copy of an early order of service, in the pre-Milner White format (not starting with ‘Once in Royal…’, John 1 earlier in the service than the 9th lesson etc.) We used that version the next Christmas but the congregation didn’t like it as it wasn’t the Milner-White format that they were used to!

    My view (though I haven’t done any research to back it up) is that Milner-White (if not Benson and/or Walpole in Truro) was clearly looking back at the pre-Reformation Vigil that led up to Midnight Mass. Parallels with the Easter Vigil format are clear to me, with hints like standing eucharistic Gospel-like for the John 1 reading, including ‘Yea, Lord, we greet thee’ in ‘O Come, all ye faithful’ “a day early” etc.


  2. In 2014 Truro Cathedral Choir issued a recording of a reconstruction of the 1880 service.
    This is the order of service issued with the reconstruction:

    Our Father / O Lord, open thou our lips / Gloria Patri
    Benediction and First Lesson Genesis 3.8–15
    The Lord at first had Adam made – English traditional from Christmas Carols New and Old (1879), edited Bramley and Stainer
    Benediction and Second Lesson Genesis 22.15–18
    Good Christian men, rejoice – In Dulci Jubilo Traditional German melody, (Piae Cantiones, 1582), adapted Rev Thomas Helmore
    from Christmas Carols New and Old
    Benediction and Third Lesson Numbers 24.15–17
    The First Nowell – English traditional from Christmas Carols New and Old
    Benediction and Fourth Lesson Isaiah 9.6–7
    For unto us a child is born from Messiah – George Frederic Handel
    Benediction and Fifth Lesson Micah 5.2–4
    Bethlehem of noblest cities – melody Stuttgart by Christian Friedrich Witt
    Benediction and Sixth Lesson Luke 2.8–15
    There were shepherds abiding in the fields / Glory to God from Messiah
    – George Frederic Handel
    Benediction and Seventh Lesson John 1.1–14
    O come, all ye faithful – John Francis Wade
    Benediction and Eighth Lesson Galatians 4.4–7
    Once again, O blessed time – Charles Lewis Hutchins,
    from Christmas Carols New and Old
    Benediction and Ninth Lesson 1 John 1.1–4
    Hallelujah from Messiah – George Frederic Handel
    Magnificat – Chant by J L Hopkins
    The Lord be with you / Almighty God
    The Blessing
    Sonata No 3 in A major (1st movement) – Felix Mendelssohn

  3. We are very grateful to Graham Naylor ‘our Plymouth correspondent’ for the following…
    Graham writes:
    It may be of interest to readers to learn something on the Order of Service for the Festival of Nine Carols and Lessons on Christmas Eve 1880
    This from ‘A history of the parish church of St Mary, Truro, Cornwall’ by F.W.B. Bullock (1948)… (Bullock in turn takes the information from a printed copy of the Order “in the Precentor’s cupboard in the Cathedral”…!)

    First Lesson (read by senior chorister)
    Second Lesson (read by a lay choir-man)
    Third Lesson (read by a Lay-Reader of the Diocese)
    Fourth Lesson (read by a Deacon)
    Anthem – from ‘Messiah’
    Fifth Lesson (read by a Vicar, Decani side)
    Sixth Lesson (read by a Vicar, Cantoris side)
    Anthem – from ‘Messiah’
    Seventh Lesson (read by Senior Canon, Decani side)
    Eighth Lesson (read by Senior Canon, Cantoris side)
    Ninth Lesson (read by the Bishop)
    Anthem – from ‘Messiah’

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.