The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols was first held on Christmas Eve 1918. It was planned by Eric Milner-White, who, at the age of thirty-four, had just been appointed Dean of King’s College, Cambridge after experience as an army chaplain. A revision of the Order of Service was made in 1919, involving rearrangement of the lessons, and from that date the service has always begun with the hymn Once in Royal David’s City.
The backbone of the service, the lessons and the prayers, has remained virtually unchanged. The original service was, in fact, adapted from an Order drawn up by W. Benson, later Archbishop of Canterbury, for use in the wooden shed, which then served as his cathedral in Truro, on Christmas Eve 1880.
Wherever the service is heard and however it is adapted, whether the music is provided by choir or congregation, the pattern and strength of the service, as Dean Milner-White pointed out, derive from the lessons and not the music. “The main theme is the development of the loving purposes of God seen through the windows and the words of the Bible.”