Lessons and Carols is a traditional service alternating lessons from scripture about the birth of Jesus and Christmas carols expanding and illustrating the lesson. The tradition of Lessons & Carols began in 1880 with a special service held in a wooden shed.

The most famous example is the service of nine lessons and carols at King’s College, which was first held in 1918, the year of the Spanish Flu epidemic. The service has been held every year since then.

The King’s College service always begins with “Once in Royal David’s City.”


Once in royal David’s city,
Stood a lowly cattle shed,
Where a mother laid her baby
In a manger for His bed:
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ her little child.
He came down to earth from heaven,
Who is God and Lord of all,
And His shelter was a stable,
And His cradle was a stall;
With the poor and meek and lowly,
Lived on earth our Savior holy.
And through all
His wondrous childhood,
He would honor and obey,
Love and watch the lowly mother,
In whose gentle arms He lay.
Christian children all should be,
Mild, obedient, good as He.
For He is our child-hood’s pattern,
Day by day like us He grew,
He was little, weak, and helpless,
Tears and smiles like us He knew,
And He feeleth for our sadness,
And He shareth in our gladness.
And our eyes at last shall see Him,
Through His own redeeming love;
For that child so dear and gentle,
Is our Lord in heaven above,
And He leads His children on,
To the place where He is gone.
Not in that poor lowly stable,
With the oxen standing by,
We shall see Him, but in heaven,
Set at God’s right hand on high;
When like stars
His children crowned,
All in white shall be around.
This was a poem written by Cecil Frances Alexander, who was a woman. Henry John Gauntlett, an organist and hymn composer, write the music. The traditional arrangement was written not only for the choir at King’s but also for the space, so the recording above is just right for full appreciation.
Lessons and Carols are now done all over the world. I have many happy memories of participating as a singer. The weeks of preparation, working together to create a wonderful experience for the congregation, give musicians many opportunities to think deeply about the familiar and beloved Christmas story.
This year, with the pandemic, I am not taking the risk of joining the musicians. That means that I will have the opportunity to experience Lessons and Carols as a member of the congregation.
Church musicians never get to experience Lessons and Carols in the moment. Church musicians always focus on what’s coming up next. It’s important not to get so caught up in the music that you miss your cue. So this year I will get to participate in Lessons and Carols in the moment, and I plan to get caught up in the music.