Lessons & Carols: A Holiday Tradition

Elizabeth Lenti

For many of us, it is a yearly tradition to listen to the annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, broadcast every Christmas Eve from King’s College in Cambridge. The history of Lessons and Carols goes further back than this most famous version. In 1880, Edward White Benson, Bishop of Truro, devised the service as a way of bringing together the city to celebrate Christmas. Truro Cathedral was still under construction, so the first Lessons and Carols service was celebrated in the wooden shed that served as their temporary worship space.

The first time King’s College held this service was in 1918, and it has been broadcast since 1928. Though the carols may change year-to-year, the readings and prayers remain unchanged. Its celebration has continued even amidst some of the most uncertain of times. During World War II, the decision was made to remove all the stained glass from the Chapel in hopes of saving it from destruction in the war. And yet Lessons and Carols still took place, in a windowless and cold chapel, in the midst of a world at war.

As we continue to make our way through this very difficult year, it seems to me that those traditions we hold dear feel more important now than ever before, even if we are unable to observe them as would we in normal times. Back in the spring, as we were navigating the early days of the pandemic, I began to think about how the Choir School would mark the end of its season. One of our long-standing traditions has been to have our graduating seniors sing the solo during John Rutter’s “The Lord Bless You and Keep You” at our final Spring Concert. It is a moving moment and a rite of passage for our choristers. I knew we had to find a way to honor this tradition. And thus, our first virtual choir project was born.

Throughout the pandemic, I have been grateful that we have been able to continue our traditions, albeit in new and different ways. This Sunday, December 13 at 5:00 p.m., we will have our annual Advent Lessons and Carols service, a favorite tradition here at St. Peter’s. This year’s carol service will be livestreamed, with readings, anthems, and familiar Advent carols, led by a quartet of singers. The congregation is invited to join in the singing of the carols from their homes. I hope that you will make this special service a part of your celebration of Advent this year.

Let us rejoice, in our carols and hymns, that the good purpose of God is being mightily fulfilled. Let us celebrate the promise that our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, will bring all peoples and all things into the glory of God’s eternal kingdom. – Bidding Prayer

Elizabeth Lenti, Director of Music & Organist