, , ,

Going to a carol service this weekend? Millions are, this weekend or next. For many it’s the only time they go through the doors apart from weddings or funerals or because they mistake it for a Wetherspoons. But then, which Christmas service do you go to?

Depending on the church in question, it’s often variations on a theme: the Children’s Carol Service, Carols by Candlelight, Traditional Carols, Contemporary Carols… But whichever non-silent night you opt for, there are some hidden histories behind each of them. Here are a few:


The first liturgy of Christmastide. It’s Christmas Eve, it flows over midnight, there’s a warm shaking of hands, and a lot of warm scarves and coats hopefully too. It’s a lovely occasion, and really, properly feels like Christmas. You need a good dose of incense smell in there too… And it’s pretty much the only time that non-Catholic denominations will call a church service a ‘Mass’.

Then again, it is in the name of Christmas of course. ‘Christ’s Mass’ was one of the earliest formal church services we know about, with some private celebrations happening a a century of so after the Nativity. But it was secret and solemn – before there were even churches to worship in. We know it was celebrated more formally by the late fourth century in Jerusalem, though it’s thought the tradition began further east… so this was on January 5th, the Eastern Christmas Eve, before the Western date of December 25th had fully landed. It took till the twelfth century to become widespread.


Sadly the Reformation took this celebration from us – though it sounded fun. It was the church’s spin on the topsy-turvy celebrations that Roman Saturnalia had started. Just as the Lord of Misrule would lead the chaotic festivities outside of the church, the Boy Bishop was the church’s attempt to join in the fun.

The popular Lord of Misrule reigned from Halloween to Candlemas (31 October to 2 February), while the church’s child equivalent ruled between the church’s two key dates for children: from St Nicholas Day on 6 December to Holy Innocents Day (more catchily named “Childermas”) on 28 December, the day commemorating Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents. Once elected, the Boy Bishop would replace the real bishop, sitting in his seat and dressed in full mitre and robes. He would perform all church ceremonies except Mass – even delivering sermons, while the regular clergy took on junior tasks.

The related “Feast of Fools” was similarly anarchic – generally on New Year’s Day, lower clergy and peasants dressed up as animals, women, or their superiors. Clearly its heathen origins had little place in the church, post-Reformation. The Council of Basle abolished the customs in the fifteenth century, and Henry VIII banned them in England by 1541.


John de Watteville: Mr Christingle


Rev John de Watteville came up with a new visual aid on 20 December 1747, at a children’s service in Marienborn, Germany. To help explain Jesus, he lit candles for each child and tied them with red ribbon – to signify the Light of the World and the blood shed for humanity. He concluded with a prayer: “Lord Jesus, kindle a flame in these children’s hearts, that theirs like thine become.”

In 1968, John Pensom of the Children’s Society revived and updated the service. To raise funds, children would donate money and receive an orange in return. Now the orange represents the world, the ribbon wrapped around it in love, while four cocktail sticks – with fruit, nuts, marshmallows, and Jelly Tots – represent the four seasons and fruits of the earth.

The name “Christingle” means “Christ fire” – not to be confused with “Kris Kringle”, which is either an old name for Santa Claus, the name of Richard Attenborough’s character in Miracle on 34th Street, or another name for “Secret Santa” in some parts of the world.


Edward Benson: Mr Nine Lessons & Carols


Edward Benson was a schoolmaster at Rugby school, arriving soon after it popularized the sport of tiddlywinks. Sorry, rugby. Just checking you’re paying attention. Benson became Bishop of Truro in Cornwall in 1877, and went on to become Archbishop of Canterbury, and to influence Christmas literature by telling his friend Henry James a simple ghost story, developed into festive favourite The Turn of the Screw. In that way that Victorian society people appeared to, Benson left creative successes all over the place: one of his sons went on to write the Mapp and Lucia novels, another wrote the lyrics to “Land of Hope and Glory”. But in terms of Christmas, Bishop Benson had a major impact all on his own.

On Christmas Eve 1880, he put on a new service at Truro Cathedral, ostensibly to lure the drunks from the pubs. Forget that image of sacred solemn singing from innocent choirboys at King’s College, Cambridge… The first Nine Lessons & Carols must have sounded bawdy, after a night in the pub.

At the time, it was feared that folk carols were on the way out, so Benson was also responsible for renewing an interest in the carol and helping preserve its future. He modelled his service on the medieval feast days, when a church would present nine lessons; his choices spanned Old and New Testaments, a bluffer’s guide from original sin to Jesus’ birth. Readings were given by successive church staff from chorister upwards to Benson himself for the closing lesson. Songs include “The First Nowell”, “Good Christian Men Rejoice”, and “O Come, All Ye Faithful” – it would take King’s College, Cambridge’s revival of the service after The Great War to put “Once in Royal David’s City” in its now traditional place at the front of the service.

The book Hark! The Biography of Christmas is available on this link.