Years of teaching young children have taught me that the definition of tradition is anything that has been done one time. That’s how I felt three years ago today when I heard the Christmas Eve service, “A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols,” performed by the staff and choir of King’s College, Cambridge, England, and members of the community of Cambridge. Within seconds of hearing a young boy’s voice singing the words to the opening hymn “Once in Royal David’s City,” I knew that a new tradition had been born in our home.
In a quarter of an hour, BBC Radio 4 will begin broadcasting the live service, and I will join millions who have also made listening to this historic service a Christmas tradition! Thanks to Internet radio, I’ll be listening in on Minnesota Public Radio.
It was in the midst of Googling the English composer, Ralph Vaughn Williams, that I ran across a page with the Order of Service for “A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.” The previous Sunday I had been perusing the various indexes in the Baptist hymnal, something I’ve been doing since I began attending Calvary Baptist Church in Denison, Texas, as a 10-year-old. Ralph Vaughn Williams had arranged several hymns in the hymnal, and I was curious about him. Over the years, “A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols” has included several pieces of music arranged by Vaughn Williams, and he composed the original tune for “Wither’s Rocking Hymn” that is part of this year’s service.
The service was first perfomed Christmas Eve, 1918, and first broadcast in 1928. The narrative, drawn from the Old and New Testaments, tells the story of Christ. Interspersed between these scriptural “lessons” are prayers and Christmas carols.
The service always begins with one young boy singing “Once In Royal David’s City.” Gradually, the 14 men, 16 boy choir joins in. In order to prevent the one chosen for the solo from becoming anxious beforehand, he is not told that he will be opening the service until seconds before the service begins.
Time to join the community of worshipers who are gathered round the radio! Live from Cambridge, England!