» Festival of Lessons and Carols

Posted on: December 10, 2017

Come Sunday, December 17 at 4pm for Scripture and seasonal music at the annual Festival of Lessons and Carols. Our children’s, youth, and adult, and handbell choirs will be joined by the Artaria String Quartet to participate in the annual singing and ringing of the carols and anthems.

At St. John the Evangelist, this traditional service has been offered for many years.  Have you ever wondered about the history of our annual Lessons and Carols service?  Why it has became so popular?

Did you know Minnesota Public Radio has played a large role in promoting Lessons and Carols in the United States? Beginning with Michael Barone’s annual live broadcasts from Cambridge, England, many years ago, tens of thousands of people tune in each year on Christmas Eve morning to listen in.  The service was first broadcast in the U.K. (over radio) in 1928 and has remained on the air each year. Cambridge time is 6-7 hours ahead of Minnesota in the winter — their service begins in the afternoon just before dust.

The original Lessons and Carols service actually started much earlier and was from a plan of E.W. Benson, later the Archbishop of Canterbury. It first took place in a wooden shed in Truro, which later became the cathedral seat in Truro. It occurred each year on Christmas Eve, beginning in 1880. Benson arranged the service from several ancient sources including nine carols and short lessons. They were read by various members of the Cathedral, beginning with a young chorister, and ending with the Bishop. The lessons and carols suggestion had come from G.H.S. Walpole, later the Bishop of Edinburgh, Scotland.  This tradition still exists in most places.

The King’s College (Cambridge, England) Festival was first held on Christmas Eve in 1918, almost 100 years ago! It was directed by Eric Milner-White, the Dean of King’s College. As an army chaplain he was convinced the Church of England needed more imaginative worship. The music was originally directed by Arthur Henry Mann, Organist at King’s College from 1876–1929. The choir at King’s College includes sixteen trebles, as instituted by King Henry 6th at King’s College. Until 1927 the men’s voices were provided by Choral Scholars (volunteer adults from the community) and by older Lay Clerks (paid adult singers). Currently fourteen undergraduate singers make up the alto, tenor and bass parts at King’s College with the original sixteen boy trebles. The lessons were rearranged in the early years and from that date the service has always begun with the well-known carol, “Once in royal David’s city.” Almost every year carols are changed and some new ones introduced by successive organists. Organists of King’s College have included Arthur Henry Mann; Boris Ord (1929–57), Harold Darke (Ord’s substitute during the second world war), David Willcocks (1957–1973), Philip Ledger (1974–1982) and from 1982 to present, Stephen Cleobury. The backbone of the service, the nine lessons and the prayers, remains virtually unchanged.

Many churches and colleges, around the world, have adapted the lessons and carols service for their own use. It is estimated that millions of listeners tune in worldwide each year. Since 1963 a shorter lessons and carols service has also been shown on television. Recordings of the carols are available commercially.

Whenever and wherever this lovely service is heard the basis of each service derives from the lessons, rather than the music. The main theme is the purposes of our Creator as seen through the lens and texts of scripture.