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Church of Ireland Notes from ‘The Irish Times’

Christmas Eve

As Christmas fast approaches the annual ritual of Festivals of Nibe Lessons and Carols is being played out in churches and cathedrals throughout the Church of Ireland as the story of man’s fall and redemption is told in nine Bible readings from Genesis, the prophetic books and the Gospels, interspersed with carols, old and new.

Through the medium of radio and, more recently, television the Festival is popularly associated with King’s College, Cambridge. However, its origins lie in Truro cathedral in Cornwall, where on Christmas Eve 1880 the Rt Revd Edward White Benson, at that time Bishop of Truro, conducted the first formal service of ‘Nine Lessons and Carols’.

In St Patrick’s cathedral, Dublin, shortly after 4pm on Christmas Eve the angelic voice of a boy treble will be begin to sing the first verse of Mrs Alexander’s famous hymn, ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ – Christmas has begun.

The cathedral will be crammed from early afternoon. Friends of St Patrick’s will travel from ‘the four proud provinces of Ireland’ to the Church of Ireland’s National Cathedral. Groups of gentlemen will totter across from their clubs on St Stephen’s Green gently elevated by a long, spiritous lunch. From the city and the suburbs those fortunate to have secured a ticket will commute. And all will listen and sing until the Service concludes with the singing of Hark the Herald Angels Sing, not to Mendelssohn’s familiar melody but, by St Patrick’s tradition, to Handel’s rousing tune from Judas Maccabaeus.

The Service will be broadcast live on RTE Radio 1.

Diana Hartford, in one of her memoirs, Among the Gaiters, wrote evocatively about travelling to the Service in St Patrick’s. The daughter of the Bishop of Kilmore, she recalled leaving Cavan with family and friends around noon, wrapped in overcoats and covered with rugs for the long drive to Dublin. She recalled that ‘there were seats kept for us in what had been the old Vice–Regal pew – we children sat on the little gilt chairs in front and had a lovely view’. She wrote that there was ‘a tightening atmosphere in the Cathedral – the atmosphere of Christmas Eve and the atmosphere of a great crowd expectant, and, as well, the highly strung silences before and between great music’. And then the climax – the final hymn – ‘heralded not only by the organ but also by silver trumpets and kettle–drums…on the crest of a wave of mounting music the choir and congregation came in on the great first line  of Handel’s tune to Hark the Herald Angels Sing’.

On the way home the children sang their favourite carols and looked out for the candles in the windows of the road side houses and cottages. On arrival at the See House in Kilmore they opened the shutters and set a candle on each window ledge – Christmas had indeed begun.

On Christmas Day in St Patrick’s the preacher will be the Dean, Dr William Morton, while the bishops, by tradition will preach in their diocesan cathedrals. 

In St Anne’s cathedral, Belfast, there will be Festival Eucharist for Christmas Morning, led by the choir of the cathedral, with Bishop Trevor Williams as celebrant and the cathedral’s Deacon Intern, the Revd Cameron Mack, as preacher.

St Anne’s has begun preparations for the 120th anniversary next June of the consecration of its nave. The cathedral has launched an appeal to replace the existing wooden nave chairs with more comfortable ones and there is an invitation to donate £100 for each chair.

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