One of my favorite services is the Festival of Lessons and Carols. To me it doesn’t seem like Christmas until I have attended at least one service. I have an academic fascination with carols, and I love traditional settings, as well as seeing the way composers and arrangers have brought new life to these ancient texts. This weekend I was privileged to participate in two services in two different settings. This time, though there were some fascinating twists to the traditional service.
First some background…
Carols have a long and rocky history. The word itself comes from an old French word meaning “to dance.” There were carols for just about all of the holidays and feast days, not just Christmas. These days were basically “vacation” days for the general populace, so they were often given over to boisterous partying, drinking, dancing, making merry, and other things of which The Church did not approve. The carols were populace, and not allowed into the liturgy.
The act of caroling, especially on Christmas Eve, was very much like Trick-or-Treating on All Hallow’s Eve. Folks would wander the streets begging for handouts (such as “figgy pudding”) while singing and generally annoying the neighbors. Both the annoyed neighbors and the Church tried to reign this in a bit by offering various organized caroling events. This reminds me of the current trend to offer “Trunk-or-Treat” or “Fall Festivals” at various churches at Halloween – same idea.
The first news report of a formalized event was in 1878. The Royal Gazette announced the event at Truro Cathedral on Christmas Eve.
The Choir of the Cathedral will sing a number of carols in the Cathedral on Christmas Eve, the service commencing at 10 pm. We understand that this is at the wish of many of the leading parishioners and others. A like service has been instituted in other cathedral and large towns, and has been much appreciated. It is the intention of the choir to no longer continue the custom of singing carols at the residences of members of the congregation.
So Truro in 1878 wasn’t the first Lessons and Carols, but just an evolution of the service. The service was formalized further into Nine Lessons and Carols in 1880, with the nine lessons covering the entire story of Redemption, from the Fall to Christ’s Birth.
The next big leap came in 1918, just after World War I. Eric Milner-White was Dean of Kings College, Cambridge and a former army chaplain, and was looking for creative services to appeal to the war veterans. Milner-White took the Truro format and added several elements including the opening processional using “Once in Royal David’s City,” the Bidding Prayer, and using members of the school community for the scripture readings. In 1929 the BBC began radio broadcasts of the service.
Whenever we can get tickets we like to go to Furman University’s Lessons and Carols. They follow the King’s College model very closely, from the Bidding Prayer to the selection of readers. There is a child reader, a current student, an alumni, a professor, other members of the staff, and eventually the president of the university reading the ninth lesson.
One of the things I like most about the Lessons and Carols service is that it provides a flexible framework. You can stick a very traditional approach, like Furman does, or adapt it to the needs of the congregation. Over my years as a music director I’ve put together lots of variations of the service, depending on the church resources. Sometimes I’ve had to truncate the service, or adapt it to time constraints to fit within a regular Sunday morning worship hour, which leads me to yesterday’s services…
Sunday, AM, St. Matthew’s Methodist Church, Greenville, SC
Earlier this fall my cousin Sam Taylor asked if I would participate in his service of Lessons and Carols at St. Matthews. I’ve had the privilege of singing with his group before, and readily agreed.
The day arrived, and I was a bit concerned. I’d suffered from a fever with coughing just two nights before, and I wasn’t sure I was really ready to be back singing. Somehow I managed to make it through with just sporadic coughing (and lots of cough drops.)
Sam had hired two violins and flute to accompany us. His Lessons and Carols were a truncated version, designed to fit within the traditional morning service. There were several nice settings for choir, including an arrangement of O Come, O Come Emmanuel set to a Chopin prelude, and an interesting Celtic Advent Carol. We ended with the opening to the Vivaldi Gloria.
Sunday, PM, Buford Street Methodist Church, Gaffney, SC
Tony Sane contacted me kind of last minute to see if I could fill in his bass section for his Lessons and Carols. I asked if he really wanted me to do this. After all, my singing had put a woman in the hospital last time I was there (a tale for another time.) He said yes, so I agreed.
I had been unable to attend rehearsals at Buford Street, but Tony had gotten me the music early for review. Even so, it was with some trepidation that I rushed from Greenville toward Gaffney along I-85. I didn’t get very far. I had a tire go flat, and had to change it with 18 Wheelers whizzing past. The real miracle of the day was that I was still wearing a white shirt after completing that task.
It wasn’t until I got to the church that I realized the full scope and creativity of Tony’s version of Lessons and Carols. The service was entitled a Portrait of Hope, and he had changed up the traditional readings to reflect that theme.
More importantly, though, was that Tony had commissioned artwork from the church community to go along with each of the readings. These were displayed along altar rail at the front of the church. Instead of different people doing each of the readings, there would be two readers, and they would move from piece to piece along the altar. The pieces of art were stunning.
Tony had brought in a brass quartet from Limestone College to accompany us. We opened with two congregational hymns, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!”, which is usually that last carol in the traditional Lessons and Carols, followed by “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”
Tony continued turning things on end with the first lesson, “The Word Became Flesh”, John 1:1-5. Normally this is reserved for the Ninth Lesson in the traditional setting. Artist Todd Sellars represented the incarnation with this painting.
We followed this with an arrangement of Holst’s “In the Bleak Mid-Winter.”
The second lesson was “The Branch from Jesse”, Isaiah 11:1-9. Wood carver Keaton Clay had carved a bowl holding apples. Appropriately, we followed it with Douglas Wagner’s “Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree.”
The third lesson was “Comfort God’s People” using the text from Isaiah 40:1-5. The artwork for this reading was a series of greeting cards designed by Jimmie Lipscomb.
We followed this reading with John Ness Beck’s “Every Valley.”
The fourth lesson was haunting. The reading was “The People Who Walked in Darkness” from Isaiah 9:2, 6-7. The striking painting was done by Gale Jackson and Marjorie Wallace. Marjorie is 87, and did her portion of the painting from a hospital bed.
Our follow-up was another congregational song, “What Child Is This?”
The fifth lesson was the traditional telling of the Birth of Jesus from Luke 2:1-7. Artist Tedi Gibbons did a painting of the traditional manger scene, which we followed with Wilha Houston’s setting of “The Friendly Beasts”, featuring a young soloist, Rebecca Crotzer.
The sixth lesson continued the Luke tradition of the Shepherd’s Arrival, from Luke 2:8-16. Tedi Gibbons also did the artwork for this reading, which we followed with a lively arrangement of “Ding Dong! Merrily on High” with percussion.
The seventh lesson was the tale of the Magi, taken from Matthew 2:1-12. To go with this reading Kathryn Herlong had painted the three kings bearing gifts.
This was followed by a congregation hymn, “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.”
Lesson Seven was “Keep Watch, I am Coming Again”, illustrated by artist Kathy Ann Johnson. We followed this with “Joys Seven” arranged by Haig Mardirosian.
Finally, the Ninth Lesson was “I Am the Light of the World”, which circled back to the John 1:9-14 version of the incarnation. Artist Lindsey Brakhage had a very creative take on the scripture, focusing on “…the world perceived Him not…” The painting shows an eye, in which the iris is the world.
We followed this with a festival setting of the First Nowell by Dan Forrest. The final hymn was “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”
It was truly a remarkable variation on the traditional Lessons and Carols settings, and Tony did an outstanding job, both with creating the service and the execution thereof. I continue to be impressed with his work at this church.
So, that wraps up my formal singing gigs for awhile. The next one will be much more mundane – playing the banjo at my mother-in-law’s Alzheimer’s home. While much less impressive, it will probably be no less meaningful. The lessons don’t always have to be scripture, and even “Jolly old Saint Nicholas” poorly executed on the banjo can bring Christmas joy.