Back in the days when the Archbishop of Canterbury was the Bishop of the End of the Land- or Truro, Cornwall, to you and me- he had a bit of a problem.
Truro, in Cornwall, had only just got its bishopric in 1880.
Queen Victoria had newly accorded the settlement city status. The surrounding tin mines had become money spinners, what with better technology and the rocketing price of tin, and the mine owners had become distinctly prosperous. The railway arrived from London Paddington in 1860. Truro was a hotbed of decent employment opportunities, what with the iron smelting works, and the pottery, and the tanneries.
You know your Dickens. On Christmas Eve employers would let their men leave early, and Christmas Day was always a day off.
Where better to go, then, when they knocked off on Christmas Eve, than the pub?
And you know how it is. You have one pint and you lose all sense of time, and before you know it is after midnight, and time to be kicked out by the landlord to roll beerily home and thrash the lights out of the wife.
So those of your who are perceptive will guess readily what the bishop’s problem was: he needed to keep the Truro men out of the pub, or all hell would let loose come 1am on Christmas morning.
What to do?
The Bishop came up with a singular solution: make them all come to church.
He invented a service. Nine lessons, nine carols. That should keep ’em out of mischief. Last an hour or two. Edward White Benson – for that was his name – organised a service at 10pm on Christmas Eve, the 24th December 1880. He organised it in his temporary cathedral: essentially a very big wooden shed.
And it worked, it seems. So well that Nine Lessons and Carols became so much of an institution that in 1918 Kings College Cambridge ran it that year, and every one after; and from 1928 onwards, the BBC broadcast its Christmas Eve Service.
It’s a tried and tested formula. Same nine lessons, and generally the same carols.
For the next nine days, starting this evening, I’ll be looking at a lesson and a carol a day.
And then, friends, it will be Christmas.