This time of year is full of countdowns. Sleeps until Christmas, the Twelve Days, the chocolate countdown of the Advent calendar…
But one of the more wholesome staples of our Christmas numerological experience is the classic service of nine carols and nine readings. It began in Truro in Cornwall with a service on Christmas Eve in 1880 organised by Bishop Benson, which has survived unaltered in essence to the present day.
Truro cathedral was being rebuilt at the time, and that 1880 service took place in a temporary wooden building which served as a cathedral for the duration of those works. It has been said that an ulterior motive to creating this ecclesiastical entertainment was to keep people out of the bars on Christmas Eve. It seems just as likely, however, that it was an effort to create an accessible liturgical narrative. With singing. Everybody likes singing at a party.
In the 20th Century the popularity of this form of worship/entertainment spread exponentially when the BBC began broadcasting the annual carol service from King’s College Cambridge in the 1930s. This remains an annual event.
The readings, then as now, take us on a breakneck tour from creation, through fall from grace, via prophecies to the eventual fulfilment of these by the birth of the Saviour Christ. Even the theologically uninterested might find resonance in that story. Perhaps why there’s so many counting games. We tick down to the end of the the year, mindful of the moments slipping beyond repair in the past. But we have a happy and optimistic ending. Even if it’s only another year about to begin, and another go at getting it right.
Of course, some might still prefer the twelve pubs of Christmas, which doubtless has its own potential for drama, or even tragedy. But really, it’s inferior as a theatrical event. And the singing is seldom as good.
Here is one selection of nine carols to entertain you as you get ready to go out. You’ll have to learn your own lessons.