December 23, 2009

Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols

One of the most important parts of my preparation for 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.kings_choir There's also 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 1928 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.

Reprinted from Pigtown Design, December 2007


  1. I share your love of this broadcast, Meg! It's one of the highlights of my Christmas Eve - always moving. Have a very Merry Christmas!

  2. Thanks for the reminder! Merry Christmas Meg!

  3. We will be listening up here in Maine...thinking of you. Merry Christmas Meg!

  4. We used to have this at Sewanee every Christmas. Just beautiful! Merry Christmas Meg!!

  5. Truly one of the most spectacular cathedrals in the world. Just breathtaking. And the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is one of the great gifts of music, of poetry, of culture, of humankind. I, too, look forward to it every year.

    But I've also managed to miss it when it's done live right here in Charm City! The Cathedral of Mary Our Queen on N. Charles Street does it every year, but it seems to happen so early in the season that I always miss it. Oh, well, one of these years . . . .

    Merry Christmas, Meg!

  6. Listening to it now, in London, as I type this. Christmas has really started.

    Merry Christmas and happy new year.

  7. Great broadcast!
    Merry Christmas!


  8. Thank you for sharing this. It sets the tone for Christmas.

  9. i brought a radio to the office on Christmas Eve and heard parts of the broadcast - it was beautiful - maybe next year I can listen in a more peaceful envirnoment. I hope you had a wonderful Christmas

  10. Hi! Just found your site (dec.29th).

    I checked BBCAmerica (television) on Christmas Eve to record the service, but could not find it on television. The Wall Street Journal had an article about the cathedral and the service, last week.

    We visited Kings' College Chapel a few years ago and were discussing the windows with our Sunday School class a couple of weeks ago. (How the stained glass is from the 1400's and depicts the old testament on the top windows with the corresponding new testament story on the lower windows - like jonah coming out of the whale's mouth and Christ coming out of the tomb).



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