One of the most important parts of my run up to Christmas is listening to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve morning as I am preparing for the festivities later on in the day. This is a quiet contemplation of what Christmas is all about, and comes from the spectacular King's College Chapel in Cambridge, England. The BBC's weekly radio newsletter puts it beautifully:
As the winter evening shadows lengthen, a solo chorister sings the first verse of “Once in Royal David's City” in the expectant stillness of King's College Chapel, Cambridge. The experience we have here is shared with millions around the world...
The solo chorister is chosen minutes before the service begins so that he won't have time to get nervous. Every time I hear the opening notes of "Once in Royal David's City", I just burst into tears. There's just something so moving about this. The Festival was something that my father and I both loved deeply and I was lucky enough to spend a summer afternoon at King's College Chapel with him and my mother. I have an abiding image in my mind of my father and his sister as children in England listening to the service on their old radio while their father prepared their Christmas dinner.There's a lovely line in the service about remembering "all those who rejoice with us, but on another shore and in a greater light", which was a reference to those lost during the Second World War, although I used to think it referred to my grandfather in England.
The Nine Lessons tradition began in 1918 and has only not happened once, in 1930. The service continued during WWII even though the magnificent stained glass windows of the chapel had been removed for safekeeping. You can listen to this service on BBC World Service or on public radio stations in the US. It is usually repeated on Christmas Day.
Updated and reprinted from Pigtown Design, December 2007/2013