The tradition of the Lessons and Carols service has its origins in late nineteenth century Anglicanism. The first formal service was conducted on Christmas Eve at Truro Cathedral in Cornwall, England in 1880. According to one source, the Anglican bishop of Truro, Edward White Benson, created the service “as a response to discourage a different festive spirit found in the local Cornish pubs.” Bishop Benson later went on to become the Archbishop of Canterbury, and his son, Robert Hugh Benson, became a renowned Catholic author and priest.
Although it had its origins in Protestantism, Lessons and Carols is a custom which has also been adapted by many Catholic churches, especially as a way to prepare for the coming of Christ at Christmas. The lessons (or readings) and the carols provide us with a kind of communal lectio divina – a time to pray, sing, and ponder over the sacred texts in common, a time to contemplate the great mystery of our Lord’s Incarnation and joyfully to anticipate his second coming.
This year’s program on December 11th falls between two great Marian feasts: the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception (December 8th) and the feast of our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas (December 12th). Hence, this year’s evening of Lessons and Carols is dedicated especially to our Lady, she whom God chose to be His Mother, the Immaculate Vessel through which the Incarnate Word assumed our human nature. Our program features several Marian compositions and readings, including Ecce Virgo, an original composition for men’s voices, composed by one of our seminarians, fr Gereon Mullenax.
Other works include music by Thomas Tallis, Harold Darke, and Henry Gauntlett. The three carols arranged by Ralph Vaughan Williams come from his Nine Carols for Male Voices. These were written for the “choir” which Vaughan Williams developed from the men in his Field Ambulance unit during World War I. Ursula Vaughan Williams records this in the biography of her husband Ralph in these words: “Another experience, which no one who was there forgot, was carol singing on Christmas Eve: snow-capped Olympus, the clear night, the stars, and Ralph's choir singing carols of Hereford and Sussex with passionate nostalgia. The choir made that Christmas so far from home one that had a special quality, a special beauty, long remembered.”
It is my hope that our evening of readings and song will help prepare our hearts for that most “special beauty,” the beauty of Christ in His Incarnation. May our Lady prepare our hearts to receive well her newborn Child this coming Christmas, and may we begin to sing now the eternal Alleluia we will sing one day when Mary’s Son comes to judge the living and the dead.
 “Nine Lessons and Carols,”https://www.trurocathedral.org.uk/history/nine-lessons-and-carols
 Ursula Vaughan Williams, R.V.W.: A Biography of Ralph Vaughan Williams, (Oxford University Press, 1964), 124.