A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols: Twenty-five years on Public Radio
Most children, if asked, would say that their favorite day of the year (with the possible exception of their birthday) would be Christmas—or a day like it—when families gather and gifts are exchanged.
If you asked me now, I would say that my favorite day is Christmas Eve, because that is the day of anticipation, a state which is always more tantalizingly enjoyable than the day of realization which is just around the corner. But there is another more important reason.
Twenty-five years ago, I was lucky enough to be part of the beginning of what is now an American holiday tradition: the first live radio broadcast in the United States of "A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.â€ The service is broadcast live from the chapel of King's College at Cambridge University, in the old and very beautiful town of Cambridge, and is about an hour's train ride north of London.
On Christmas Eve afternoon at 3:00 pm in England (10:00 a.m. in New York), in the chapel commissioned by its founder, King Henry VI, and finished by King Henry VIII, the choir of fourteen men and sixteen boys sings carols, interspersed by lessons from the Old and New Testaments read by members of the community. Prayers are offered by the Dean of the Chapel at the beginning and end of the service.
King's College first presented A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols in 1918, and the BBC began its radio broadcasts on the radio in 1929, and (with one exception) has presented it every year since. The service itself has never been on television, although a similar version is produced in advance for "the telly," and is available on DVD.
In 1979, it was not clear that such a presentation would find an audience: a live broadcast from another country; a service not widely known in America; a somewhat difficult hour on a day full of other varied activities; a choir of men and boys which produces a sound somewhat alien to American ears; and lessons read in strange accents.
I had stumbled on the idea some years before, when I had talked to my father who answered the phone in tears on a Christmas Eve. The tears, he said, came because he was moved by the innocence of the boys' voices in a record he was listening to, an abridged recording of A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King's. That was my introduction.
The idea remained dormant until I found myself in radio, just before the beginning of the satellite era, and realized that radio would change in significant ways. I knew that we could learn something from the BBC, but we needed a vehicle. A connection sprang to life - it was as simple and complex as that.
So, just over sixty years after the BBC began the broadcast, we decided to give it a try, proving that tardiness can always be excused in the presence of such a remarkable opportunity.
In addition, we had to surmount technical problems from AT&T, difficulties in funding the broadcast, and the challenge of our first international live relay.
We were blessed (and I do mean blessed) with assistance from a variety of sources. Charles Watson of AT&T pushed his staff to solve their technical problems; Joe Gwathmey, then of National Public Radio and now of Texas Public Radio, arranged NPR's fiscal support; an old friend, Walter McCarthy made another significant contribution; and NPR's technical staff solved all the international linkage problems. (American Public Media's staff took over the following year and has overseen the broadcast since—from the days of transatlantic cable, then by satellite, and now via ISDN links.) John Haslam was the BBC producer with whom I liased (that lovely Brit term) who could not have been more helpful, and has since become a very good friend.
That first transmission from England ran long, but because there was nothing scheduled on NPR's single line distribution system after the presumed end of our program, we managed to present the whole service uninterrupted. As I remember, 78 stations took that first broadcast; most of them liked it, but there were still a few doubters.
When that first broadcast was finished, those of us in the studio were waiting in the silence of tentative satisfaction when the studio phone rang. The call came from a Minnesota father who said his daughter was in the chapel that day and thanked us for the family's being able to worship together, even at a great distance. It was the first inkling of what was to come.
From the letters that poured in after Christmas, I began to develop a sense of hope that the broadcast might have attracted enough interest and support to continue. One woman in Minnesota wrote, "I turned on the radio while doing meal preparations for Christmas Day. I was so enthralled I burned the sweet potatoes. I didn't care.â€
Another, from Connecticut if I remember correctly, wrote about listening to the service as she drove from her home and family to her parents' house in Massachusetts. Her mother had died the night before, and she was going to be with her father for a very sad Christmas. The broadcast was her Christmas service that year. (A year later she wrote to say that her father had come to her home, and they had all listened to the broadcast.)
A Californian wrote to say that he listened to the broadcast while he meditated on world peace on a beach in Malibu.
During the years I was involved with the broadcast, there were many letters like that, and they, along with the response from radio stations, made it clear that for a large group of people, Christmas with the broadcast from King's had become an important, if not essential, listening tradition.
Last year at my fortieth college reunion, I heard a similar story from a classmate whom I had not seen in all those years - involving his drive on Christmas Eve morning to be with his mother and listening to the broadcast enroute.
For some listeners, it's the carols; for others it's the clear and even readings of the lessons; for some it's the prayers offered by the Dean. But for most of us it is the whole of the service, including the knowledge of being part of a worldwide congregation beginning its celebration of Christmastide.
The particular joy of radio is that we are left on our own to imagine the light coming through the stained glass, illuminating the chapel, the look of the boy who sings the first verse of "Once In Royal David's City," and the faces of each who reads a lesson. Because of radio, the service becomes highly personal and deeply moving.
For many years, I have had a breakfast gathering of friends on Christmas Eve morning. We have copies of the Order of Service downloaded from the King's College Web site, and we participate actively in the service. It was a Jewish friend who said at one event that he could not understand why we did not sing the congregational hymns, so now when everyone sings in Cambridge, we sing in Minnesota. And yes, each year there are glistening cheeks. If you know and love the broadcast, how could there not be?
There are have been other more subtle results of the broadcast from King's. One can find many more local versions of the King's College service offered throughout our land, some of the English carol tunes have wormed their way into our singing, and—in Cambridge—the number of attendees from the USA at Evensong and Sunday services seems to have increased significantly in the last several decades.
A broadcast tradition, however long lived, is never a guarantee that it will continue. So enjoy the broadcast and then support your public radio station by way of appreciation for its being part of this tradition.
Each Christmas Eve, I am grateful for having been part of beginning the American broadcast of "A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols" in the USA, thrilled that so many people have taken the service into their hearts, and deeply appreciative of the web of friendships which the service has brought into my life.
I hope your listening to and participation in the broadcast—and all the festivities of the season—bring you and your family, near and far, great joy.
©2003 The Nash Company printed with permission