A Brief History of
The Service of Lessons and Carols
The carols sung at the Advent Service of Lessons and Carols, and throughout the subsequent liturgical seasons of Christmas and Epiphany, have deep roots in the tradition of Christian worship. Because the origin of carol-singing is pagan (the derivation of the word may be koros: the circle of dancers and singers that complemented the dialogue of Attic drama), it was only by the grudging consent of the medieval Catholic Church that Christian carols took root in Europe. However, by the beginning of the fifteenth century, carol-singing had become an integral element of seasonal worship. Though carols, indeed the celebration of Christmas itself, were banned in England by the Puritan regime of Oliver Cromwell during the seventeenth century, they were preserved and augmented in the New World, and eventually restored as a beloved tradition in Britain.
While the terms “carol” and “hymn” may occasionally overlap, the two genres are, in fact, different. Hymn texts tend to didacticism; while the purpose of the carol - one that stems from its medieval analogue, the mystery play - is narrative. For unlettered folk of the Middle Ages, the carol, like a stained glass panel or a fresco tableau, depicted the momentous event of Christ’s Incarnation. And, in honor of the saint who may well be called the father of the Christian ode to joy, Francis of Assisi, the nature of most carols is both “hilarious” (joyous) and reverential.
Centuries ago, carol-singing celebrated several seasons of the Church year. The custom has come, however, to be associated with the seasons of Advent and Christmas.
The tradition of the “Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols” was established in England - as the adaptation of an earlier service - on Christmas Eve, 1918, in the chapel of Kings College, Cambridge University, for the university community and for the City of Cambridge. The Kings College service was first broadcast by radio in 1928; and, excepting the year 1930, these broadcasts have continued (for seventy years internationally) to this day. This wonderful tradition, moreover, has been duplicated in cathedrals and churches throughout America. It is in keeping with this spirit that The Anglican Singers, artists-in-residence at St. James Episcopal Church in New London, some years ago established the custom of performing a Service of Lessons and Carols at St. James on an Advent Sunday in December, in thanksgiving for the impending Incarnation, and as an offering of appreciation for both its “home” church, St. James, and the City of New London.
Each year’s Service of Lessons and Carols includes selections sung by The Anglican Singers interspersed with congregational hymns and scriptural readings by members of the greater New London community. We invite you to join us in this wonderful seasonal tradition.