A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols

Perhaps the most famous carol service, is the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King's College in Cambridge, UK. This service takes place at 3.00pm (UK Time) on Christmas Eve and is broadcast live on BBC Radio (and all over the world).

The service was created and performed in 1880 by Edward Benson, who was the then newly appointed Bishop of Truro (in Cornwall in the UK). Bishop Benson later became the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Service took place at 10.00pm on Christmas Eve in a large wooden building that was being used as a temporary Cathedral as the main Truro Cathedral was being rebuilt.

Kings College Chapeljh
King's College, Cambridge Chapel by Flcherb (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The idea traveled around the UK and became quite a popular service to hold on Christmas Eve. However, it was made very famous by the choir from King's College, Cambridge, which was reckoned to be the best Church choir in the world at the time.

The Service was first performed at King's College in 1918 as a way of the college celebrating the end of the First World War. The new college Dean, Eric Milner-White, who had been an Army Chaplain in WWI, wanted a different and more positive way of celebrating Christmas for the choir and people in the college.

In 1919 he changed the opening hymn/carol to be ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ and set the main order and structure of the lessons/readings as it still is today.

A service of Nine Lessons and Carols has nine Bible readings (or lessons), that tell the Christmas story, with one or two carols between each lesson. Now, famously, the opening verse of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ (Sing along to Once in Royal David's City!) is sung by a single boy chorister (or treble) but in the early years of the service at King's College it was sung by the whole choir. Several choristers train to perform the solo, but the boy who will sing it is only told a couple of minutes before the service starts, so he can’t get too nervous!

The BBC first broadcast the service, on the radio, in 1928 and apart from 1930 it’s been broadcast every year since - even during WWII. In the early 1930s, the BBC started broadcasting the service overseas. It was first broadcasted live in the USA in 1979 where it’s presented by Michael Barone.

The choir rehersing at King's College, Cambridge, used with kind permission
Photo used with kind permission of the Provost and Fellows of King's College, Cambridge

You can find out more about the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols at King's College, Cambridge and download previous service sheets from their website (goes to another site).

As well as the 'Nine Lessons and Carols', there's another famous Christmas event from Kings called 'Carols from Kings'. This a recorded TV program which is shown on BBC TV on Christmas Eve around 6.00pm. Many people think they're the same service - but they are not! They are two different events which take place at different times; and although they share many of the same carols, they have different readings and a different structure.

Many churches hold their own services which follow the patten of A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. Sometimes you also get carol services which are a combination of Nine Lessons and Carols and Carols by Candlelight! So you have Nine Lessons and Carols by Candlelight!

Christmas for the Choristers at King's College, Cambridge

In 2014, one of the staff at the King's School was kind enough to talk to me about what it's like for the choristers at Christmas. So a big thank you to them for the following information!

The choir at King's College, Cambridge was created by King Henry VIII and he said there were to be 16 boy choristers. Now there are normally between 15 and 18 choristers in the choir; this is because there are sometimes one or two extra boys in case some of the choristers have their voices break and so can no longer sing the choir! This happened in 2014 when there were 17 at the start of the school year, but by mid December one voice had broken and so they were back to the correct 16! The boys are aged between 8 and 13.

The preparation for Advent and Christmas starts in late November when the boys are given the 'Christmas Booklet' which contains all the carols and songs which they will be performing over the Christmas period. This is very exciting and the boys look through the booklet to see if their favorite songs and carols will be sung that year!

Throughout the year, the choristers rehearse every day and sing five days a week at six services in the College chapel.

The time running up to Christmas is a busy time for the choir and choristers but also a fun one, which they look forward to and really enjoy.

The Advent Sunday service is the start of their seasonal singing and after the service there's an Advent party for the choir. This is very popular as it includes a mince pie eating contest! The winning number (as of 2014) is 15 - that's a lot of mince pies!

In the first 10 days on December, normally on a Tuesday, there is a 'dress rehearsal' service in the chapel. This is the first chance for the choir to sing most of their Christmas material. Local schools send some of their children to the service as a chance to hear the world famous choir.

The famous 'One on Royal Davids' City' first verse solo is sung three times over the Christmas period: at the 'dress rehearsal' service, at 'Carol's from Kings' and at the 'Nine Lessons and Carols service'. All the choristers want the honour of being one of the boys chosen to sing the solos. The soloists are chosen by the Choir's director.

The 'Carols from King's' service is recorded by BBC TV on the Sunday following the 'dress rehearsal' service. Lots of rehearsals take place on the Friday and Saturday before the filming and recording on the Sunday.

After the filming of 'Carols from King's' there's a little break for the choristers including a team building and fun day!

During the next week they normally perform at one or two Christmas Concerts. In 2014 the concerts were in Edinburgh, Scotland, and at the Royal Albert Hall in London. The choristers really enjoy the concert at the Royal Albert Hall as they lead the thousands of people there in singing three carols.

Following the concerts, the boys go home for a few days, to spend some time off with their families and have a break.

The choristers come back to the school on the 23rd of December to prepare for the important services on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. There are lots of rehearsals on the 23rd and then they visit the Provost of King's College (the head of the College) and receive some little gifts and then do something really fun like laser quest!

Choristers at King's College, Cambridge, used with kind permission
Photo used with kind permission of the Provost and Fellows of King's College, Cambridge

Christmas Eve is the day of 'Nine Lessons and Carols' so there's more rehearsals during the morning! The boy who will song the live solo to millions of people listening to the service around the world is chosen by the Choir director and he will start the service at 3.00pm UK time.

Once the service has finished it's a great relief to the choir & choristers, staff and their families! After the service there is a little party and then the choristers and their immediate families go to the school house to play some games and eat a big Christmas dinner.

After the meal, the boy's families leave and then there's lots more fun with them setting 'Santa Traps' and eating more mince pies! There's also a 'best decorated dorm' competition which is planned for several weeks in the run up to Christmas (they make paper chains and do craft activities like making Christmas wreaths).

The boys get an allowance to choose some presents for themselves (normally ordered from online shops) and they also have some presents left by their families.

The choristers like to try and stay awake to spot Santa arriving, to see if he falls into any of their Santa traps - but the staff hope they will go to sleep!!!

On Christmas morning they wake up early and sometimes go and sing carols outside the staff accommodation.

There's also a Christmas morning pillow fight, which is looked forward to for weeks before Christmas! The boys often says that's the best bit about Christmas at King's!!!

When they're up and dressed they have to hunt Santa, who's hidden somewhere in the school. When they find him they get some more presents! This is followed by a big breakfast ready for the Christmas morning service in the college chapel at 11.00am.

After the Christmas morning service, the boy's families come and see them in the school house and then they go home at 2.00pm. The choristers then have about a week at home with their families before they come back to the school to start the new year.

In 2016, the organ in the chapel underwent major restoration. You can find out more about the restoration over the Kings' website (goes to another site).

The boy choristers leave the choir at 13 to move on to senior school, so the choir always needs new boys to sing in it. You can find out more about what life is like for choristers at King's on their Become a Chorister website (goes to another site).

Listen to and/or sing along with a simple Online Carol Service (about 35 minutes long) - opens big. It's got seven carols and five readings/lessons, so not quite a full Nine Lesson and Carols service, but you still might enjoy it!