A Treasury of Christmas Carols


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Carol Services

Beginnings at Truro

The popularity of carol services has continued to grow since the late 1800s. One early carol service is the Festival Of Nine Lessons and Carols, which was first celebrated December 24, 1880 at Truro, Cornwall, England by Rev. G. H. S. Walpole, later the Bishop at Edinburgh, and Bishop Edward White Benson, later the Archbishop of Canterbury (1883). The first Festival was conducted at 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve under the conductorship of the Vicar Choral, Rev. Walpole, and the Organist, Mr. William Mitchell.

According to Ray Robinson, prior to 1878, the church choir had the practice of caroling throughout the community, singing carols at the residences of the members of the congregation.

But at the request of leading parishioners and others, "an ordinary carol service" was instituted in 1878, and in 1880 the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols was initiated. At that time, the old St. Mary's Church was in severe disrepair, and had been largely demolished. A wooden structure was erected to serve as the parish church until the new Cathedral could be built. Not quite a "wooden hut," the structure was large enough to hold 400 parishioners.

A local newspaper, The West Briton, announced the new service, noting that "a like service has been instituted in other cathedrals and large towns, and has been much appreciated."1

According to A. C. Benson, "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." The service also included a sermon.

The next year, The West Briton reported that "The Cathedral was crowded, many Nonconformists as well as church-goers being present."

The Carol Service consisted of the following:

  • Prayer

  • First Lesson

  • Carol

  • Second Lesson

  • Carol

  • Third Lesson

  • Carol

  • Fourth Lesson

  • Anthem from Messiah

  • Fifth Lesson

  • Hymn

  • Sixth Lesson

  • Anthem from Messiah

  • Seventh Lesson

  • Hymn

  • Eighth Lesson

  • Carol

  • Ninth Lesson

  • Anthem from Messiah

  • The Magnificat

  • Prayer

As would be the case in the King's College Festival, the musical climax came at the Ninth Lesson, here with the Messiah Chorus and the Magnificat.

According to an article by Ray Robinson, Bishop Benson made two important contributions to the festival as it known today:

  1. They revived a medieval liturgical custom by beginning the lessons with the fall of man and choosing the rest of the readings to illustrate the story of redemption, from the Old and New Testaments; and
  2. They organized the readers to form another sequence, climbing upward from the rank of chorister to the Bishop himself.

Other sources also note the involvement of Rev. Walpole in these innovations.

The Festival At King's College

On Christmas Eve 1918, the Truro service was adapted for use in the Chapel at King's College of Our Lady and St Nicholas in Cambridge, which was founded and endowed in 1441 by King Henry VI.

The service began with the Cecil Frances Humphreys Alexander hymn "Once In Royal David's City," a practice that continues to the present day. The service was created by Very Reverend Eric Milner-White, Dean of King’s College, who after experience as a World War I Army chaplain, became convinced that the Church of England needed more imaginative worship. The music was directed by Arthur Henry Mann, Organist, 1876–1929.2

The 1918 service was not altogether successful, and the Order of Service was revised for 1919. This consisted of a rearrangement of lessons, an adjustment of the music, and the creation of the now-famous Christmas Bidding Prayer. Since then, the lessons and the prayers have remained virtually unchanged. See: History Of The Service.

In March, 2007, I was privileged to receive a copy of the 1936 program of the Festival "On Christmas Eve," of which only 250 copies were printed. The beautifully illustrated volume was produced under the direction of Leonard Jay by the students and teachers at the City of Birmingham School of Printing (a department of the Central School of Arts and Crafts, Margaret Street). The page at left is of the Fifth Lesson, and shows the lettering and illustrations found in this volume.

The 1936 program was substantially the same as that heard in 2000 (see below), although the Bidding Prayer had significant variations, and The Collect was completely different. Of the Lessons, all were the same except the Fourth Reading (which was from Micah 5:2-4) and the Sixth Reading (which was from Matthew 1:18-23). The 1936 version omitted the last sentence of the First and Eighth Lessons.

With only two exceptions,3 the selection of carols varies from year to year. See: Carols and Hymns from the Festival Of Nine Lessons and Carols (1997-2006, plus the carols and hymns from 1918, 1936, 1937 and 1957). Carols are changed and new ones have been introduced according to the tastes of the Organists at the College: Arthur Henry Mann (1876–1929); Boris Ord, 1929–1957; Harold Darke (Ord's substitute during the war), 1940–1945; Sir David Willcocks, 1957–1973; Philip Ledger, 1974–1982 and, since 1982, Stephen Cleobury.

Cleobury (1948 - ) was an organ scholar at St John's College, Cambridge, under George Guest, and sub-organist of Westminster Abbey before becoming Master of Music at Westminster Cathedral in 1979. In 1982 he was appointed Director of Music for the Choir of King's College, Cambridge, where he also teaches. He has been conductor of Cambridge University Musical Society (CUMS) since 1983. In addition, he was Chief Conductor of the BBC Singers from 1995 to 2007, until succeeded by David Hill.

Since his appointment to King's Mr. Cleobury has commissioned a new carol for each year's Festival. Many of these new carols are found on the CD "On Christmas Day: New Carols from King's Choir of King's College, Cambridge"; it was released by EMI in 2005. Some are also included on the CD "One Star, At Last: A Selection of Carols of Our Time," performed by the BBC Singers under the direction of Stephen Cleobury. It was released by Signum UK in 2005.

But although the selection of carols changes from one year to the next, the order of service, the prayers, and the readings generally remain constant. The reason for this is that the heart of the service is the readings. "It's a service, not a concert," the music office of King's College emphasizes. As Rev. Milner-White observed, "The main theme is the development of the loving purposes of God, seen through the windows and words of the Bible." The purpose of the carols, he continued, is to amplify and reinforce the message of the scriptural readings.

The popularity of the Festival has spread throughout the world, due in no small part to the British Broadcasting Company. The Christmas Eve Festival was first broadcast by BBC radio in 1928 and 1929, and annually since 1931. In 1954, a special taping of the entire service was prepared for television; since 1963 edited tapings have been periodically televised. Today, millions of people around the world hear or see the Festival which is broadcast by the BBC radio, television, and short-wave beginning at 3 p.m. (1500 GMT). Radio and television stations in many countries rebroadcast the service, including several hundred American Public Media radio stations in the United States (not to be confused with the Public Broadcasting System, PBS). It is also streamed via the Internet (BBC4: http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcfour/). It is also rebroadcast on the BBC's Radio 3 on Christmas Day. Note that the Americas no longer have a directly-beamed BBC short-wave signal.

William Pearson Edwards has written a wonderful history of the service, with photographs and lavish illustrations: The Festival of Nine Lessons And Carol As Celebrated On Christmas Eve In The Chapel Of King's College, Cambridge (New York: Universe Publishing, 2004). It includes the lessons, plus the texts to numerous carols, together with a CD (27 tracks including the prayers, lessons, carols and hymns). Note that this CD does not appear to be the recording of a particular year, but, rather, includes readings, carols and hymns from various years of the performance of the Festival. Note that there are erroneous references to a volume purportedly written by Monroe Leaf with the same title. Leaf was not the author; it is the Edwards volume (of which I am now the proud possessor of two volumes ;)

Recordings of past Festivals are also available at the King's College Chapel Shop, at Amazon.com, and elsewhere. There are also recordings of Festivals from other locales, such as that from St. John's Episcopal Cathedral, Denver, Colorado: "A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols" (Donald Pearson, Organist and Choirmaster, 1998). Additional resources are listed on the Christmas Music page.

The Order of Service, 2000

Here is the order of service at King's College, Cambridge, Christmas Eve, 2000:

Organ music before the service

Processional Hymn: Once In Royal David's City

Bidding Prayer: Dean of King's College
In The Bleak Midwinter (H. Darke)

Lesson 1: Genesis 3:8-15, 17-19
The Lord At First Did Adam Make
Adam lay ybounden

Lesson 2: Genesis 22:15-18
Angels From The Realms of Glory
How shall I fitly meet Thee (Johann Sebastian Bach) (How Shall I Meet Thee)

Lesson 3: Isaiah 9:2, 6, 7
Nowell sing we now all and some (Medieval)
Congregational hymn: It Came Upon The Midnight Clear

Lesson 4: Isaiah 11:1-3a, 4a, 6-9
Riu, riu, chiu (Attrib. Meteo Flecha the Elder)
A Spotless Rose Is Blowing (Herbert Howells)

Lesson 5: Luke 1:26-35, 38
The Angel Gabriel From Heaven Came
Joys Seven (The First Good Joy That Mary Had)

Lesson 6: Luke 2:1, 3-7
Sleep little Jesus (Sleep, My Little Jesus?)
In Dulci Jubilo

Lesson 7: Luke 2:8-16
I Wonder as I Wander
Congregational hymn: While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night

Lesson 8: Matthew 2:1-12
Three Kings From Persian Lands Afar (Peter Cornelius)
The Three Kings (J. Dove)

Lesson 9: John 1:1-14
Congregational hymn: O Come, All Ye Faithful

Collect for Christmas Eve and Blessing

Congregational hymn: Hark The Herald Angels Sing

Organ voluntaries:
In Dulci Jubilo BWV 729 (J S Bach)
Fête (Jean Langlais)

Note: The links to hymns and carols above are to public domain texts of these songs, most with sheet music, but are not the versions performed in the original program. See: Nine Lessons And Carols 2000, which contains the full text of the service, together with a PDF booklet. (Site accessed October 29, 2006)

Create Your Own

If you would like to fashion your own version of this service, you may wish to visit the Nine Lessons and Carols page at King's College, Cambridge. There you can find the text and carols to all services since 1997, either in HTML or PDF formats (or both in some cases).

In addition, on this website are texts of the prayers and lessons from the Festival: Readings for a Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. That page also contains links to recordings of the prayers and lessons of the Festival. The text has been used by kind permission of the Provost and Fellows of King's College. Please do not use the text or recordings for any commercial gain.

MP3s of many Christmas hymns and carols may be found at:

(As a "proof of concept," I created my own Festival CD.)

And see the following sources for texts, or the order of service, or both.

As noted above, on this website are texts of the prayers and lessons from the Festival: Readings for a Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. That page also contains links to recordings of the prayers and lessons of the Festival.

And see Godfrey Rust: Poems and Readings for Christmas. A delightful collection of poems, most of which were written for carol services, and many of which are regularly included in Christmas-tide services throughout the UK. Do not expect Victorian platitudes, however, as some of these poems take an unflinching look at a world in desperate need of salvation, and require an honest look at the world, one's self, and one's faith. In the end, these poems, like the well-known angelic announcements, proclaim the birth of 'God Saves.'

Other Carol Services

In addition to the Festival, many other kinds of Christmas carol services have been created. Here are a few examples:

  • Edward P. Mason, Two Responsive Carol Services (For Christmas and Easter). Boston: Oliver Ditson, 1883.

  • J. E. Trowbridge, Responsive Christmas Carol Service for Sabbath Schools (Ditson, 1883).

  • J. F. Kinsey and John McPherson, Echoes of Glory. LaFayette, IN: The Echo Music Co., 1888. A Christmas Programme - 1888.

  • Richard R. Chope, Carols For Use In Church London: William Clowes & Sons, The Complete Edition, 1894: Six Carol Services for Christmas. Chope also had two services for Easter and three services for Harvest.

  • Charles L. Hutchins, The Child Jesus (Medford, MA, prior to 1892). One of several carols services written by Rev. Hutchins, one other of which was a Christmas service (The Christ Child).

  • A Festival Service of Nine Lessons And Appropriate Music. London: Oxford University Press, 1934. Based on the Christmas-tide A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King's College, this service was adapted by the Winchester Diocesan Choral Association to embrace all the seasons of the Church's year.

  • Benjamin Britten, A Ceremony of Carols (1943) (available from many sources, including SheetMusicPlus)

  • Carol Service, 1947 (from a handwritten note in the back of my copy of Shaw and Dearmer, The English Carol Book, Combined Edition, 1938)

  • Erik Routley, The English Carol (New York: Oxford University Press, 1958), pp. 227 et seq., and Appendix 1 that includes orders of service at Truro and Addington, plus the order of service at King's College from 1918, 1937, and 1957. Appendix II contains a service of lessons and music for Lent. As this source is under copyright, the carol service is not reproduced here.

  • Paul Thomas, "The Road To Bethlehem: A Service of Nine Lessons and Carols," with music by Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1962, 1990). In the form of the King's College service, Mr. Thomas states that this service can be used anytime during the twelve days of Christmas.

  • Richard Tatlock and Desmond Ratcliffe, The Story of Christmas. A New Presentation of the Festival of Nine Lessons. Sevenoaks: Novello, 1973. This version of the Festival envisions the use of a narrator instead of the usual nine readers. In addition, the text read by the narrator has been converted into blank verse of varying meters. Each lesson is followed by a carol or hymn (and alternative), and the service concludes with Collects and the Blessing from the Missal of Leofric (Leofric (1016-1072), First Bishop of Exeter, 1050-1072; note that the missal is in Latin).

  • Hal H. Hopson, A Festival of Lessons and Carols. Van Nuys, CA: Alfred Publishing Co., 1997. As described, following the order of the King's College Festival, with arrangements by Hopson.

  • Hal H. Hopson, Sing Noel! A Carol Service. Van Nuys, CA: Alfred Publishing Co. A service of music and readings celebrating the birth of Christ. The traditional scripture lessons have been replaced by poetry, some familiar, others less so (although not for lack of their beauty).

  • The Nine Lessons of Messiah's Birth,, Byrneville United Methodist Church, December 23, 2001 (http://www.jacksonsnyder.com/arc/New%20Century%204/Nine%20Lessons%20and%20Carols.htm; accessed March 25, 2007). An example of a local adaptation of the King's College Festival.
  • Reformed Church of America. Numerous Advent, Christmas and Epiphany resources.

In 1928, the same year that the BBC first broadcast the King's College Festival, the editors of The Oxford Book of Carols suggested the use of a "new type of informal popular service, to be announced as a 'Carol Service,'" and held on a weekly basis throughout the year. They suggested the following form:

  1. Short prayer

  2. Hymn or Carol

  3. First Reading

  4. Carol A

  5. Poetry

  6. Carol B

  7. Notices

  8. Carol C

  9. Second Reading

  10. Carol D

  11. Short lecture or address

  12. Hymn or Carol

  13. Lord Prayer and Grace

There are additional details on the page titled "Notes On The Use Of Carols" (p. 447 of my copy, the 1964 edition).

The Advent Carol Service

In recent years, the Advent Carol Service has also gained in popularity, in part to re-emphasize the spiritual value of the Advent season which must each year compete with the onslaught of commercial messages (and has, for dozens of decades; we're not the first to have to undergo this annual gauntlet!).

One such Advent service, "A procession with Carols upon Advent Sunday," was created in 1934 by Rev. Eric Milner-White, who created the King's College Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols in 1918-1919. He wrote:

In the old English liturgies, the Advent Offices made a preparation for the coming of our Lord to this earth far more vivid and eager than those of our present Prayer book. So an Advent Carol Service, if without precedent, is not without suitability, if it helps to express "the desire of all nations and ages."

The purpose of the Service, he wrote, was "not to celebrate Christmas, but to expect it".

Those who wish to create such a service have numerous tools at hand, including these:

The BBC reproduced the Advent Carol Service programs for 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007 from the Chapel of St John's College, Cambridge. Although the 2006 page indicated that the service could be heard for only seven days following its initial posting, I was able to listen to the 2006 service on March 26, 2007. Here's the link to the BBC Player for this service: Advent Carols (http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio/aod/radio3_aod.shtml?radio3/adventcarols). I've read that the BBC has broadcast the Advent Carol Service each year since 1981.

In general, the order of the service from St. John's, Cambridge, has followed this pattern from 2004-2006:

Advent Prose: Rorate coeli (Plainsong)
Processional Hymn: O come, O come, Emmanuel
Bidding Prayer

I :The Message of Advent

Sentence and Collect
Antiphons: O Sapientia; O Adonai

First lesson: Isaiah 11:1-5

Second lesson: 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Anthem / Motet

II: The Word of God

Sentence and Collect

Antiphons: O Radix Jesse; O Clavis David

Third lesson: Micah 4:1-4
Carol / Motet

Fourth lesson: Luke 4:14-21
Hymn: Come thou long-expected Jesus

III: The Prophetic Call

Sentence and Collect

Antiphons: O Oriens; O Rex Gentium

Fifth lesson: Malachi 3:1-7

Sixth lesson: Matthew 3:1-11
Hymn: On Jordan's bank the Baptist's cry

IV: The Christ Bearer

Sentence and Collect

Antiphon: O Emmanuel

Seventh lesson: Luke 1:39-49 1

Eighth lesson: John 3:1-8 2
Sentence and Christmas Collect
Hymn: Lo! He comes with clouds descending

College Prayer and Blessing
Organ Voluntary: Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV645 (Johann Sebastian Bach)

In 2004, the following lessons were substituted:

1. 7th Lesson: Micah 5:2-4
2. 8th Lesson: Revelation 22:1-7

I do not have access to any of the texts recited during this service.

It is said, but I have not confirmed, that some modern service books contain suggested Advent and Christmas carol services. As my collection is almost exclusively of hymnals, rather than service books, I'm unable to make any recommendations.

The closest I could come was three brief services from The Hymnal For Worship & Celebration (Waco, TX: Word Music, 1986). One service was titled "The Advent Of Our Lord - A Brief Service of Joyful Expectation." It contained a brief poetic introduction ("We Shall Come" by Mary E. Caldwell), followed by three carols: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel; Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus; and Joy to the World! It is found at 122-125.

The second service is "Gloria In Excelsis Deo - A Brief Service of Proclamation and Praise." Following a brief introduction (Luke 2:8-14), three carols are sung: Angels From The Realms of Glory; Angels We Have Heard on High; and Hark! the Herald Angels Sing. See 130-133.

The third service was "For Unto Us A Child Is Born - A Brief Service in Celebration of Our Lord's Birth." Again, it contained a brief introduction (Matthew 1:18-23), followed by four carols: Infant Holy, Infant Lowly; How Great Our Joy!; O Come, All Ye Faithful; and For Unto Us A Child Is Born. See 142-146.

For those seeking Christmas poetry in the creation or augmentation of their services, please see Christmas Poetry And Prose.

A final published festival to be noted is Hal H. Hopson's A Festival of Hymns: The Writers Tell Their Stories (Miami, FL: Warner Bros. Publications, 2000).This unique festival service features eleven significant hymn writers through the ages, from the 4th to the 20th centuries, telling their own stories in the first person, followed by one of their hymns.

An annual Advent Program, patterned after the Salzburger Adventsingen, is celebrated in Ormond Beach, Florida. The ecumenical program is patterned after the 50-year-old Salzburg program and it retains the warm and simple folkstyle of that region. Everything from Alpenhorns to the churchbells of Salzburg can be heard in the background. For more information, see ADVENTSINGEN: http://www.welcome.to/adventsingen

Additional Resources

I have also found ChoralNet to be an excellent source (helpful hint: enclose search phrases in quotation marks).

In addition, here are three searches at Google® for:
    Advent Service
    Advent Carol Service
    Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols

Additional resource (not reviewed):

The Christmas Story In Six Lessons With Nine Carols Sung By The Choir Of Westminster Abbey, London: Fabbri & Partners Limited, 1969. Large paperback with 10" LP record.

If you can provide additional information (or, *gasp* correct an error!), please .



1. The source for this information was a letter by Ray Robinson, "A Postcard from Cambridge: Personal Impressions of Life at an English University" on the topic of "The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols," dated December 2002. This was letter six in a series with similar titles. This file was, for a time, available on the Internet, but I was unable to locate it when I searched on March 25, 2007. This page seems to be an excerpt from (or perhaps a prelude to) his article "The Service of Lessons and Carols," Choral Journal (American Choral Director's Association), December 1990, pages 13-20. Notes from that article supplement those from the "Postcard."

William Pearson Edwards wrote that there was a London publication in 1884 titled "Nine Lessons With Carols: A Festal Service for Christmastide," (and another edition by the "Church's Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge"). I have, so far, been unable to locate a copy, but will continue my search. See: William P. Edwards, The Festival of Nine Lessons And Carol As Celebrated On Christmas Eve In The Chapel Of King's College, Cambridge (New York: Universe Publishing, 2004), p. 12. Return

2. Erik Routley writes that the remarkable harmonization of "Once In Royal David's City" was by Dr. Arthur Henry Mann, the organist at King's College in 1919. Routley wrote "with subtle art that arrangement turns the homely children's hymn into a processional of immense spaciousness." See: Erik Routley, The English Carol. New York: Oxford University Press, 1959, p. 231. Since then, descants and organ parts for the final verse have been written by Sir David Willcocks, Philip Ledger, and Stephen Cleobury. Return

3. The two carols or hymns which do not change are the processional, Once In Royal David's City, and the final hymn (recessional?) that follows The Collect and The Blessing, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. Return


William Pearson Edwards,
The Festival of Nine Lessons And Carol As Celebrated On Christmas Eve In The Chapel Of King's College, Cambridge.
New York: Universe Publishing, 2004.

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Collections of Christmas Carols & Poetry
Compiled and Edited by
Douglas D. Anderson

Victorian Visions
A Christmas Poetry Collection

Divinely Inspired
A Christmas Poetry Collection

The Bridegroom Cometh
Poetry For The Advent

Other books by Doug Anderson

Once A Lovely Shining Star

A Christmas Poetry Collection

So Gracious Is The Time

A Christmas Poetry Collection

How Still The Night

The Christmas Poems of Father Andrew, S.D.C.

 Father and Daughter

Christmas Poems by Frances and William Havergal

Now, Now The Mirth Comes

Christmas Poetry by Robert Herrick

What Sudden Blaze Of Song

The Christmas Poems of Rev. John Keble

 A Holy Heavenly Chime

The Christmastide Poems of Christina Georgina Rossetti

All My Heart This Night Rejoices

The Christmas Poems of Catherine Winkworth

A Victorian Carol Book

Favorites from the 19th Century —
Still favorites today!

Other Books by Doug Anderson

A Psalter – A Book of the Psalms Arranged by Luther's Categories

Betbüchlein: A Personal Prayer Book, a recreation of Luther's 1529 prayer book

Daily Prayer

Luther's Passional

Luther's Writings on Prayer: A Selection

Devotions for the Advent – 2009

The Lenten Sermons of Martin Luther, Second Edition

Descriptions of all these volumes can be seen at
Books by Doug Anderson

Christmas is a wonderful, cheerful holiday.  Whether we spend it by a real tree or some Balsam Hill artificial Christmas trees, at the end of the day what matters is that we enjoy our time together with our loved ones. 

The Hymns and Carols of Christmas
Douglas D. Anderson

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