It's going to be several more weeks before radio stations start to broadcast Christmas music, and the new choir year is only just beginning in most places. Music directors across the globe, however, are already deciding on this year's Christmas motets for their choirs.
What is a Festival of Lessons and Carols?
Lessons and Carols is a popular alternative to the traditional Christmas concert. The festival usually consists of nine Lessons (i.e., scripture readings), recounting salvation history up to the birth of Christ.
I. The Fall of Man
II. God’s promise of descendants to Abraham
III. The promise of a Savior
IV. A shoot from the stump of Jesse
V. The angel Gabriel came to Mary
VI. The birth of Jesus
VII. Angels appear to the shepherds
VIII. The three Magi
IX. Prologue to the Gospel of John
Each of the nine Lessons is followed by one or two Carols (e.g. chants, choral anthems, hymns or carols) which relate to the Lesson, and a prayer.
Lessons and Carols services are held across the globe every year, by churches from a great variety of Christian denominations. Some festivals are traditional, others more contemporary. The most famous L & C festival is on Christmas Eve every year, broadcast from King’s College in Cambridge, where it has been held since 1918.
So, why host your own Festival of Lessons and Carols?
Reason #1: The format is simple.
Wash, rinse and repeat…
Reason #2: It's flexible.
A Lessons and Carols festival may contain five, seven, or nine Lessons.
It can be held as a stand-alone service, or in an abbreviated version, preceding another liturgy.
Each Lesson may be followed by two Carols (choral and congregational), or just one.
The Lessons may be chosen from scripture according to different liturgical seasons. There are festivals for Advent, for Christmas, for Epiphany — even for Passiontide.
The wealth of sacred repertoire appropriate for L & C is nearly inexhaustible. Selections will change from year to year, to be programmed according to the abilities of the choir's members, allotted rehearsal time, and previously learned repertoire.
L & C is suitable for great cathedrals and small parishes alike.
Reason #3: You get to SING!
Yes, this is stating the obvious, but it’s really important. Lessons and Carols is not simply a listening opportunity. Properly done, it is an immersive experience which involves singing by the entire community. Scientific studies have proven that there are numerous, palpable benefits to group singing: physically, emotionally, and psychologically.
Reason #4: It brings people together.
The invention of cell phones and social media are leading to an increasingly fragmented society. It’s getting harder and harder to get people together, to make new friends, to get along with our neighbors, and to experience a sense of belonging. Singing in community provides an answer to these problems.
Does your church have multiple music ensembles? L & C is a chance for them to gather and do something together. Plus, L & C festivals tend to emphasize the theological beliefs held in common across denominations, and the services are open to all to attend. And honestly, who doesn’t enjoy an opportunity to sing Christmas carols every year?
Reason #5: You can expose people to new repertoire.
Is Latin chant a no-go during your regular Sunday services? No problem. There are plenty of beautiful Latin hymns quite fitting for a L & C. Not enough time in the liturgical year to sing all the gorgeous Advent repertoire that you’d like to do? L & C provides the stage. Concerned that a certain choir anthem isn’t traditional enough for the Christmas choir's service? Program it for L & C.
Image above is from a Festival of Lessons and Carols, conducted by Dr. Horst Buchholz at the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis in 2018. The hour-long service was professionally broadcast by HEC-TV, and may be viewed here.
Was this article helpful? Would you add any more reasons for planning a L & C? Let's hear it in the comments!
The mission of the International Chant Academy is to keep the beauty and meaningfulness of Gregorian Chant and Early Sacred Music alive and relevant. We foster understanding of these art forms, and teach the musical and vocal skills necessary to excellent performance.
Visit our website.