Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, England, with Stephen Cleobury as music director, perform the annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. As is tradition on Christmas Eve, a lone boy is selected by the choirmaster to sing the first verse of “Once in Royal David’s City.”
It is that time of year again, to commemorate and celebrate a musical winter tradition that is this year marking its centenary. In an article (“Every Christmas Eve, a Lone Choir Boy Sings to More Than 370 Million;” December 23, 2018), in The New York Times, Michael White writes:
A serene liturgical parade of music, words and wonder that expounds the Christmas story, the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is the high point of the year for King’s, a University of Cambridge college with a celebrated choir that sings in its chapel almost every day while classes are in session.
And this year will be special: Partly because it’s the 100th Lessons and Carols, but also because it’s the last time Mr. Cleobury — who has held one of the most coveted jobs in church music for longer than most people can remember — will be in charge.
Something about the Lessons and Carols’ serene liturgy of music, words and wonder touches a nerve. It seems embedded in the DNA of Christmas, a tradition from the ancient past. Except it isn’t.
It was started in 1918 by a young Anglican priest who had returned to Cambridge after serving in the trenches of World War I. He called it a “festival,” but it was also a commemoration for the war dead, with a so-called Bidding Prayer for “those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore and in a greater light.”
It established a precedent, and churches and cathedrals copied the new liturgy for themselves — to the point that the format of Nine Lessons and Carols became a standard at Anglican churches around the world.
And a beautiful one, too, that all peoples of the world can enjoy.