Tell us how this service got started.
The service as we know it started in 1918 in King’s College Chapel, and it was started by the chaplain, Eric Milner-White. He had taken a concept that had been used in 1880 in Truro by Ezra Benson, who later became the Archbishop of Canterbury, so it wasn’t a new idea, but he made it what it is today. You have to visualize December 1918 in Cambridge. This is a university where somewhere in the area of half of all of the undergraduates had gone off to war, and a third of them never came back. On December 24, 1918, six weeks after the end of the war that was going to end all wars, you’ve got a congregation which is probably largely made up of widows, girlfriends””in those days they would’ve been called fiancÃ©es””children there to somehow deal with this horror that they’d just been through. Most Americans, because we weren’t as deeply involved in the First World War, don’t understand the impact that war had on Europe. I grew up, we all grew up, really, being talked to about appeasement and how we gave Hitler too much and blaming [Prime Minister Neville] Chamberlain, but in fact if you look at what the British had gone through less than twenty years before you can understand. I mean, 900,000 Britons were killed in that war compared with only 300,000 in the Second World War, even with the Blitz and everything else. The war had taken the best and the brightest, and [Eric Milner-White] put together a service of what he called Nine Lessons and Carols, and the nine lessons were things from the Scriptures in, at that point, of course, the King James Bible. There were four from the Old Testament foretelling the birth of Christ, four from the New Testament telling the Nativity story, and one from the Book of John, “In the beginning was the Word,” and so on, and he interspersed them with carols.
What do you think he wanted to do? How would this Christmas service have had an impact on those who had suffered so much?….