100 Years of ‘A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols,’ at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge

'The place where the carols are sung'
December 17, 2018 Updated: December 21, 2018

A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols,” at King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, England, is the sound of Christmas, if ever there was one. This Christmas Eve, the chapel will celebrate its 100th year of the much-loved service.

Known by many as simply “the place where the carols are sung,” the King’s College Chapel has hosted the service that has been broadcast by the BBC since 1928 and across the world since the early 1930s.

King's College Chapel Choir Boys
Choristers sing in King’s College Chapel. (Kevin Leighton)

The carols are sung by the Choir of King’s College, a male choir composed of 16 choristers, between the ages of 8 and 13, along with 14 choral scholars. The choral scholars and two organ scholars are undergraduates at Cambridge University.

King's College Chapel Cambridge
Choral scholars sing in a service at King’s College Chapel in 2018. (Kevin Leighton)

Bishop E. W. Benson compiled the original “Nine Lessons with Carols” order of service from ancient texts. Benson, who later became the archbishop of Canterbury, gave the first “Nine Lessons with Carols” service on Christmas Eve in 1880, in a wooden shed that then served as a cathedral in Truro, in the southwest of England. The service quickly spread to other congregations.

The Effects of War

In 1918, Dean Eric Milner-White adapted Benson’s order of service for the King’s College Chapel. He had recently served as an army chaplain at the Western Front, and when he returned to England, he felt inspired to bring his congregation a more imaginative service.

The annual service continued during World War II, supported by a small number of choral scholars and volunteers who supplied the lower voices of the choir while other members were at war. The chapel was freezing cold, as all the stained glass had been safely stored and replaced with blackout material and gray tar paper, which must have added its own peculiar percussion to the service as it rustled in the wind.

During the war, the choir featured in the propaganda film “Christmas Under Fire,” to rally American support for the war.

King's College Cambridge Chapel reading boy
A chorister rehearses his reading. (Benjamin Sheen/King’s College Cambridge)

The 1918 Tradition

Since 1918, the annual service has kept to the same structure: Each of the nine lessons (biblical readings) remains the same, and they are read by readers in order of ascending hierarchy, starting with a chorister and ending with the bishop. And since 1919, the service has always opened with “Once in Royal David’s City” and closed with the carol “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” The remainder of the hymns, carols, and music is chosen by the director of music, Dr. Stephen Cleobury.

Stephen Cleobury Kings College Chapel Choir
Stephen Cleobury, director of music, conducts The Choir of King’s College in 2017. (Kevin Leighton)

For over 36 years, Cleobury has upheld the choral heritage of King’s College Chapel. He likens King’s “A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols” to “an ancient tree which has a trunk and roots. The service has roots in the past, but it is still growing new leaves,” he said to Britain Magazine. One of those new leaves he started in 1982, when he began at King’s and introduced a new tradition, the commissioned carol.

This year, the commissioned carol is by Judith Weir, master of the queen’s music (a role that is the musical equivalent of poet laureate, according to Classic FM). Her hymn “O Mercy Divine” puts music to nine “haiku-like verses” from Revd. Charles Wesley’s (1707–1788) “Hymns for the Nativity of Our Lord,” in which, Weir says, Wesley tells of Jesus’s humble beginnings and how this sets an example for all of mankind.   

King's College Chapel Chorister Sheet Music
Sheet music sung by a chorister. (Kevin Leighton)

For Cleobury, this year’s service is particularly poignant, as it will be his last before he retires on Oct. 1, 2019, and Daniel Hyde takes over. Hyde, a former King’s organ scholar, is currently the organist and director of music at St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue in New York.

“While naturally I feel a sadness at this Christmas being my last at King’s, it will be a special delight to participate in the 100th anniversary of “A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols” and to help bring the service to millions around the world one last time,” said Cleobury by email.

To commemorate the centennial, a new album, “100 Years of Nine Lessons and Carols,” has been released.

Choir King's College Chapel
The Choir of King’s College, 2018. (Kevin Leighton)

The Candlelight Service

The Christmas Eve service begins with a surprise: Cleobury selects a chorister for the opening solo right at the last minute, to avoid nerves for the boy and, no doubt, the boy’s parents.

Once the congregation of more than 1,000 settle in their seats, along with the millions who listen live around the world, the anticipatory silence before the soloist sings his first notes must be electrifying. Lit only by candlelight, the breathtaking late-Gothic chapel comes alive.

King's College Chapel Cambridge
The congregation enters the magnificent King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, ahead of “A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols,” in 2016. (Benjamin Sheen/King’s College Cambridge)

If you have never heard The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, imagine this: “Although the Chapel’s acoustics—extremely resonant but with a softness that makes it extraordinary—also influences the choir’s sound, that halo effect, the King’s sound is quintessentially English, with a purity in the way the boys, in particular, sing, which could become hooty but never does. The voices are always supremely well-blended,” said former King’s organ scholar Sir Andrew Davis, music director and principal conductor of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Choir King's College Chapel
The 2018 choristers and choral scholars of The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge sing by candlelight. (Kevin Leighton)

For Christians, the service lights a divine light within. The importance of the service is in the lessons rather than the music, said Milner-White, and for the congregation to develop “the loving purposes of God.”

For non-Christians, their personal insights will no doubt shine just as bright. The service is a time for solemnity, to take stock, to slow down at the end of the year, to rejoice, and to be grateful.

“When you recall the services’ origins at the end of the World War I, it becomes not just a beautiful act of worship, but one that has a deep poignancy. It was always intended as a service to bring the country together after the world war, and its simple design of lessons and carols continues to this day,” wrote Ben Sheen, King’s College record label manager, in an email.

“A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols” is broadcast around the world, including by some 450 radio stations in the United States. American Public Media is one of them. To find out how to watch or to listen to the service, visit www.Kings.Cam.ac.uk/events/chapel-services/nine-lessons.html

Kings College Chapel Cambridge Choir 2018
The Choir of King’s College, 2018. (Kevin Leighton)