AC Benson recalled: ‘My father arranged from ancient sources a little service for Christmas Eve – nine carols and nine tiny lessons, which were read by various officers of the Church, beginning with a chorister, and ending, through the different grades, with the Bishop.’ The suggestion had come from G. H. S. Walpole, later Bishop of Edinburgh.
Almost immediately other churches adapted the service for their own use. A wider frame began to grow when the service was first broadcast in 1928 and, with the exception of 1930, it has been broadcast annually, even during the Second World War, when the ancient glass (and also all heat) had been removed from the Chapel and the name of King’s could not be broadcast for security reasons. In 1932 the BBC began broadcasting the service on overseas programmes. It is estimated that there are millions of listeners worldwide, including those to BBC Radio Four in the United Kingdom. In recent years it has become the practice to broadcast a repeat digital recording on Christmas Day on Radio Three.
The first television recording of a shortened version of the Christmas Eve service took place in 1954, and regular TV broadcasts took place from 1963. The televised recording was named Carols from King's and is shown on BBC Two on Christmas Eve. This is recorded by the BBC early in December and is a different service from A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. Recordings of carols by Decca and EMI have also served to spread the fame of the Christmas services.
In these and other ways the service has become public property. From time to time the College receives copies of services held, for example, in the West Indies or the Far East and these show how widely the tradition has spread. The broadcasts, too, have become part of Christmas for many far from Cambridge.
One correspondent writes that he heard the service in a tent on the foothills of Everest; another, in the desert. Many listen at home, busy about their own preparations for Christmas. Visitors from all over the world are heard to identify the Chapel as ‘the place where the Carols are sung’.
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 words of the Bible’. Local interests appear, as they do here, in the bidding prayer, and personal circumstances give point to different parts of the service. Many of those who took part in the first service must have recalled those killed in the Great War when it came to the famous passage ‘all those who rejoice with us but on another shore and in a greater light’. The centre of the service is still found by those who ‘go in heart and mind’ and who consent to follow where the story leads.