The Right Coast

December 31, 2004
Lessons and Carols from Kings, Cambridge
By Maimon Schwarzschild

You can listen to the annual "Service of Nine Lessons and Carols" from King's College, Cambridge, posted here by the BBC. (And here is the full text of the service, posted by King's College.) This is one of the most attractive Christmas events in England.

If you are ever in England at Christmas, and you don't have the pull needed to get coveted tickets to the King's event, there are similar services in many churches elsewhere in the country. I recommend St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square, candle-lit, the pews packed with Londoners. Or the Parliamentary Church of St Margaret's, Westminster, where one of the lessons always used to be read by Enoch Powell. There is nothing like this in the canonical Christian liturgy of course: "Nine Lessons and Carols" was invented in Cambridge in the 1920s, in the aftershock of the First World War. It is a British phenomenon as much as a Christian one. But there are now these services in Anglican churches everywhere in what had been the Empire: I once went to one in a whitewashed Anglican chapel in Dunmore Town, Eleuthera, in the out islands of the Bahamas. It followed the King's, Cambridge, pattern more or less to the letter.

Here endeth today's dose of nostalgia for the British Empire. But listen to the music: it's quite lovely.

UPDATE: One of the carols from King's is "In Dulci Jubilo": partly in English (but originally, in German), partly in Latin. These half-Latin, half-vernacular tunes are called "macaronic", and were very popular for centuries in Europe. "In Dulci Jubilo" was a favourite of J.S. Bach's. The mix of Latin and vernacular is a reminder of the spectrum that exists in any well-developed religion -- Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism too -- between scholars' sophistication and popular belief. As a kid, I learned sephardic songs that are partly in Ladino, partly in Hebrew; and German-Jewish songs whose texts are all Hebrew, but whose tunes were obviously old German military and drinking songs. (An uncle of mine used to mock them as "cheery little ditties from the Thirty Years' War".) Jews from Frankfurt-am-Main -- where the Schwarzschilds (and Rothschilds) came from -- were especially fond of these songs, which were passed down through the generations. I know at least a dozen of them. But how many other people still know any of them?