IT IS 133 years since Bishop Edward White Benson (left)
devised the first Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. He was the
first Bishop of Truro, and that first festival
service took place in a wooden cathedral. Earlier that year, on 20
May 1880, the Prince of Wales, as Duke of Cornwall, had laid the
foundation stone of the three-spired cathedral that stands
Part of the Bishop's motive for the service, Christopher Gray,
the Organist and Director of Music at the cathedral, says, was to
keep his flock from enjoying too much of the wrong kind of festive
The Bishop took nine lessons from the Old and New Testaments,
and interspersed them with carols and three "anthems" from the
Messiah: "For unto us a child is born," "There were shepherds
abiding in the field," and the "Hallelujah Chorus".
The pattern of readers was set with the first lesson being read
by a choirboy, and subsequent ones progressing through the
hierarchy, up to the bishop himself.
It was an immediate success, and the service was soon taken up
beyond Cornwall. But it was King's College, Cambridge, that really
established its almost universal place in the Christmas
In 1918, the Dean of King's, Eric Milner-White, made a few
definitive changes that have endured ever since, including
beginning with "Once in royal David's city", its first verse sung
by a boy treble. He composed the well-known bidding prayer; and
moved the opening of St John's Gospel from seventh place to become
the climax of the service. Ten years later, the BBC broadcast it
for the first time.
But, on 17 December this year, the service will be held in its
original form in Truro, the congregation having copies of the 1880
typeset order of service with Benson's precise instructions about
when to stand, and to kneel at the line "on our knees confessing"
in "Once again, O blessed time".
"Where we're not aiming to be authentic", Mr Gray says, "is the
heating: it will be left on."