Nine Lessons and Carols (some useful notes)


Beloved in Christ, be it this Christmastide our care and delight to hear again the message of the angels, and in heart and mind to go even unto Bethlehem and see this thing which is come to pass, and the Babe lying in a manger.

Therefore let us read and mark in Holy Scripture the tale of the loving purposes of God from the first days of our disobedience unto the glorious Redemption brought us by this Holy Child.

But first, let us pray for the needs of the whole world; for peace on earth and goodwill among all his people; for unity and brotherhood within the Church he came to build, and especially in our communities and in this diocese of Exeter

And because this of all things would rejoice his heart, let us remember, in his name, the poor and helpless, the cold, the hungry, and the oppressed; the sick and them that mourn, the lonely and the unloved, the aged and the little children; all those who know not the Lord Jesus, or who love him not, or who by sin have grieved his heart of love.

Lastly, let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore, and in a greater light, that multitude which no man can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh, and with whom in the Lord Jesus we are for ever one.

These prayers and praises let us humbly offer up to the Throne of Heaven, in the words which Christ himself hath taught us:

Our Father,
who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name;
thy kingdom come;
thy will be done;
in earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive them that trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation;
but deliver us from evil;
for thine is the kingdom,
the power and the glory,
for ever and ever. Amen.

May the Almighty God bless us with his grace; Christ give us the joys of everlasting life, and unto the fellowship of the citizens above may the King of Angels bring us all. Amen.


The Nine Lessons and Carols tradition was begun in 1919 at King’s College Cambridge by the Dean, Eric Milner-White, although it was adapted from a format created by Bishop Benson of Truro in 1880 in order to keep people from the Pubs on Christmas Eve: but I promise I won’t keep you that long!

That classical introduction that we have just heard comes from the original 1919 Service, and reminds us of its purpose: to rehear the story afresh, no matter how many times we have heard it through song and Scripture: from the depths of the Old Testament and the Prophets and to the Revelation of Christ in the Gospels, and to treasure it. Although we regard many of the Carols we will sing tonight as ancient, typically, most of them are Victorian, or Victorian adaptations at least.

So, to begin, let us begin our lessons so that we might learn:


Genesis 3:8-15 The Fall

1. Once in Royal David’s City 19

Once in Royal David’s City was originally written as poem by Mrs Cecil Frances Alexander. It was first published in 1848 in Miss Cecil Humphreys’ hymnbook Hymns for little Children.

CF Alexander (a Bishop’s wife) is also remembered principally for her hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful. But I won’t hold that against her.

Genesis 22:15-18 The Promise to Abraham

2. Of the Father’s Love Begotten 3

Of the Father’s Love Begotten is ancient: written by the Roman Poet Aurleius Prudentius, and being set to Medieval Plainchant. The version known and loved in English was translated by John Mason Neale, an Anglican Priest and key liturgist of the Oxford Movement. He was influential in reviving many ancient hymns to the Church of England.

Isaiah 9:2, 6-7 The Prophecy of the Messiah’s birth

3. O Little Town of Bethlehem 1

In 1865, Phillips Brooks (1835-1893), an American Anglican clergyman, visited Bethlehem. That visit inspired him to write this carol originally as a poem in 1867. Originally set to a tune called S. Louis (he was American after all), in this country we most know it set to Ralph Vaughn Williams’ tune Forest Green an adaptation of a traditional English folk-tune “The Ploughboys Dream” and appeared first in the much beloved English Hymnal of 1906.

Isaiah 11:1-9 The Prophecy of the Messiah’s Kingdom of Peace

4. In the bleak midwinter 2

The text of this much loved Carol was written by the English Pre-Raphelite Poet, Christina Rosetti in 1872 and was set to this tune by Gustav Holst (of the Planet Suite fame) for the 1906 English Hymnal.

For me and for many, the real meaning of the Carol is given in the last verse, where we are encouraged to give to Christ not the riches of the earth but something far more valuable and befitting of God in human flesh:

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man
I would do my part;
Yet what I can, I give Him –
Give my heart.

Luke 1:26-38 The Annunciation

5. Angels from the realms of Glory 18

Angels from the Realms of Glory was written by Scottish poet James Montgomery in 1816. There are a variety of well known tunes including Regent Square by Henry Smart, but in the UK we usually use the French Carol tune Iris as featured in the Oxford Book of Carols

Matthew 1:18-34 The Birth of Emmanuel

6. Silent Night 13

The words of Silent Night were written by a Priest called Fr. Joseph Mohr in Mariapfarr, Austria, in 1816 and the music was added in 1818, by his school teacher friend Franz Xaver Gruber, for the Christmas service at St. Nicholas church in Oberndorf, Austria. It was translated into English in 1863 by John Freeman Young.

The carol was sung during the Christmas Truce in the First World War in December 1914 as it was a song that soldiers on both sides knew!

In this year of the Anniversary of that lull in the terrible carnage of the Great War, when humanity dared to break out amidst the hostilities, it is perhaps good that we still gather to sing of that Silent and Holy Night where peace on earth might once again break out and end the hostilities caused by man’s greed and vanity.

Luke 2:8-16 The Shepherds go to the Manger

7. While Shepherds watched their flocks 7

Despite what you and I might have sung in the playground, the Carol While Shepherds Watched their Flocks neither features clean socks nor the watching of BBC or ITV or anything. The words are attributed to Irish lyricist and poet laureate Nahum Tate and was for some time before 1700 the only hymn permitted to be sung in Church – prior to 1700 only Psalms could be sung. Thank goodness we in the good old CofE have seen the light on that one!

As for tunes, well, many are connected with it… On Ilkley Moor

Matthew 2:1-11 The Magi are led by the star to Jesus

8. We three Kings 21

The Quest of the Magi was written in 1857 by American John Henry Hopkins and is responsible for encding in our memories a number of thing about the gentile visitors to the Christ Child which are not attested to in Scripture.

The Gospel of Matthew identifies them as Magi – wise men or astrologers, mystics from the East, perhaps Persia or further East, but does not identify how many there were – only that they brought 3 gifts. Their names were therefore never given, but the names we know, love and sing of tonight: Kaspar Melchior and Balthazar were given by the 2nd Century theologian Tertullian and still persist. I like them named, as it personifies this revelation to the world of Christ and helps us to explore the mystical meanings of the gifts of Gold, Incense and Myrhh, more of which we will explore at the Feast of the Epiphany

John 1:1-14 The Incarnation of the Word of God

9. Joy to the World 11

The words of Joy to the World are by Isaac Watts, that great 18th Century Hymn writer and speaks of both Christ’s Incarnation and his second coming in Glory, to which we all look. The tune is often thought to be by Handel, but isn’t. Certainly no more than 4 notes lifted from the Messiah, anyway. Antioch was written by Lowell Mason in 1839 and is one of the most popular of all Christmas Hymns.


Blessing and Dismissal

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
he has come to his people and set them free.

Light has sprung up for the righteous
and joyful gladness for those who are true-hearted.

Glory to God in the highest
and peace to his people on earth.

May the humility of the shepherds,
the faith of the wise men,
the joy of the angels,
and the peace of the Christ Child,
be God’s gift to us and to all people, this Christmas
and the blessing of God Almighty,
the +Father, Son and Holy Spirit be upon you and remain with you, this night and always.

Go in the peace of Christ
Thanks be to God