How drunk Cornish people invented the Christmas carol service

Posted on Dec 11, 2019 Tags: , , ,

Carol services are a wholesome and much-loved tradition. Believers and non-believers alike crowd into ancient churches during Advent and get into the festive spirit by singing traditional carols, often by candlelight. The atmospheric combination of medieval buildings, candlelight, and the simple harmonies of the carols can make carol services seem very ancient indeed.

So, it may come as a surprise to learn that carol services are in fact only 140 years old. And they were invented by a bishop who wanted to keep his Cornish congregation out of the pubs.

The building of Truro cathedral

Truro Cathedral is one of the UK’s most modern cathedrals. When work on it began in 1880, it was the first cathedral to be constructed in England for 660 years. The Diocese of Truro were very excited to be getting a cathedral of their own. Prior to the building of Truro Cathedral, the nearest cathedral was in Exeter (some 87 miles away).

However, among the poorer folks of Truro, the building of Truro Cathedral was a bit more controversial. In order to make space for the giant structure, a great many homes and a much loved 16th century parish church had to be demolished. This left a bad taste in many mouths, and people tried to assuage that taste with alcohol. Enormous amounts of alcohol.

Unsurprisingly, those who had lost their homes and those upset at the demolition of their church were not particularly inclined to grace the Diocese of Truro with their presence. Instead of piously devoting themselves to worship, they instead took themselves to the pubs. With congregations dwindling and public drunkenness increasingly becoming an issue in Truro, the Bishop of Truro sought a way to lure the people out of the pubs and into the growing cathedral.

Edward White Benson – first Bishop of Truro

Edward White Benson, the first Bishop of Truro, was an interesting man with an interesting family. His wife and at least four of his children were openly gay at a time when such things were frowned on in secular society – let alone among the ranks of the clergy. His wife wrote extensively in her diaries about the 39 lesbian lovers she had over the course of her lifetime. One of these lovers ultimately became the girlfriend of the Benson’s daughter, Nellie, which must have made Christmas reunions a bit of a trial. Another daughter, Margaret, was the first woman to be granted permission by the British government to undertake archaeological excavations in Egypt. Two of the Benson sons became a gay author and a gay poet respectively, writing keenly and often successfully about homosexual themes despite the intolerance of the time.

Edward White Benson himself was a formidably intelligent man. He’d been chosen as the very first Bishop of Truro because the diocese was confident that he was the candidate best placed to navigate the complicated relations between the church and its alienated congregation. Benson’s intelligence and charisma were powerful forces which they believed would reunite the population of Truro with its diocese. And it worked.

Pre-service carols

Christmas carols, ultimately, are folk songs. And, like most folk songs, they were traditionally sung in pubs. Yes, that’s right. Those heavenly-sweet songs you chime out in church began life being bawled out in beery taprooms. Well, the older ones did, anyway. Carols written before 1880 (for example, ‘The Holly and the Ivy’, ‘I Saw Three Ships’ and ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’) tend to have a more folksy tempo than later carols. So, it wasn’t just to get drunk that the people of Truro were shunning the churches in favour of the pubs. It was also to get into the Christmas spirit with a good old singalong. And it was this which Bishop Benson thought he could utilise to draw his congregations out of the pub and into the churches.

So, he settled down to write the world’s very first carol service.

The Nine Lessons with Carols Service

The service Bishop Benson came up with was simple, effective, and has remained more or less unchanged in format since the day he finished writing it.

The service is exactly what it sounds like: nine readings from the Bible interspersed with carols. The readings tell the story of the Nativity from the angel Gabriel’s appearance to Mary right through to the holy family escaping King Herod by fleeing Bethlehem. Traditionally, the first reading is read by the lowliest chorister and the subsequent readers rise incrementally in hierarchy, with the highest-ranking clergy member present taking the final reading.

The service was a hit. People crammed themselves into the temporary church, roared out the songs, and listened attentively to the readings. The Bishop had managed to tap not only into the public’s love of a good singalong but had also harnessed the Victorian Christmas zeitgeist. The Victorians overall put a lot of effort into making Christmas a family festival rather than the feast of mischief and excess it had been in previous centuries. The carol service fitted with this movement very neatly.

Today, carol services occur all over the world, and are a cherished aspect of Christmas. But they’d never have happened had the Bishop of Truro not needed to get his congregations out of the pubs.

Popular in Traditions

Other things you might like in this category