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News > Christ College Archive > A seasonal lesson in carols

A seasonal lesson in carols

Though the Christmas Service of Lessons and Carols is most often associated with King's College Cambridge, Christ College has been holding such a service for longer - and for fascinating reasons.
Chapel Choir: 1997 (Christ College Archive)
Chapel Choir: 1997 (Christ College Archive)

Originally an ancient medieval custom, The Service of Nine Lessons and Carols was revived in the 1870s by Dr Benson at Lincoln Cathedral. When he was appointed Bishop to the newly formed diocese at Truro, Dr Benson took the service with him. The first service there in 1880 was held at 10pm on Christmas Eve, carefully timed to keep the men out of the pubs in the late evening. 

King’s College adopted the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols in Christmas 1918. Much less well known is that Christ College had already been holding its own Service of Nine Lessons and Carols for some years by then - pre-dating the service in Cambridge by more than a decade.

Writing in The Sunday Times in January 1956, Canon Donaldson (Christ College Master 1902-1955 and recently retired Chaplain) replied to a letter on the subject. He explained that his father was the First Precentor of Truro Cathedral in Bishop Benson’s time and, as a youngster, he himself had attended the annual Service of Nine Lessons and Carols there. He wrote that he had introduced the form of service to Christ College fifty years earlier in 1906. 

The same form of service has been held continually by Christ College for more than a hundred years, with each of the now seven lessons being read by a range of members of the Christ College community: the first lesson traditionally read by a junior pupil and the last lesson read by the Head.           

While holding the Carol Service in the Cathedral also feels like a long-standing tradition to recent OBs, it’s one that goes back only 30 years to 1991 - and it didn’t take place on the last day of term until 1997. From its inception in 1906, the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols at Christ College was always held in the Chapel on the evening of the last Sunday of term. In the 1960s additional services were introduced, subsequently providing three (and sometimes four) separate Carol Services - for Town and Guests, Parents, and School.

Inevitably safety considerations require this year’s arrangements to be tweaked, and the service will take place in the school Chapel - a Carol Service venue that will be more familiar to many OBs. Though Covid restrictions prevented a Carol Service in 2020, the 2021 service will again be A Service of Lessons and Carols. One can’t help but think that Canon Donaldson would reflect with some satisfaction that Christ College is preserving such a precious legacy, and has done so for more than a century.


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