A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols

A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is the Christmas Eve service held in King's College Chapel. The Festival was introduced in 1918 to bring a more imaginative approach to worship. It was first broadcast in 1928 and is now broadcast to millions of people around the world.

The service includes carols and readings from the Bible. The opening carol is always 'Once in Royal David's City', and there is always a new, specially commissioned carol. It is distinct from Carols from King's, which is a carol service pre-recorded for BBC television, also broadcast on Christmas Eve.

Listening to the service

A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is broadcast live on BBC Radio 4 on 24 December at 3pm (10:00 EST or 07:00 PST). The service is also broadcast at 2pm on Radio 3 on Christmas Day, and at various times on the BBC World Service.

In the United States the service is broadcast by around 300 radio stations, including American Public Media and its affiliates (Minnesota Public Radio and WNYC-New York, for example). Unfortunately there is no list of radio stations that are broadcasting the service, so it's best to contact your local stations or check their online listings.

Attending the service

The Choral Scolars sing to the queue

The Choral Scholars singing to the queue on Christmas Eve

Members of the public are warmly invited to join members of College and their personal guests for the service. We aim to have about 600 seats available and these are given to those who queue for them. The queue begins to form a day or so before the service outside the main College entrance on King’s Parade, and is admitted to College grounds at 7.30am on Christmas Eve.

We cannot know in advance how many people will want to queue, so we cannot tell you what time to start queueing to be sure of a seat. However, we will ensure that you do not find yourself queueing for a place that doesn’t exist. In recent years those who were queuing by 9am were successful.

Further details:

  • Toilet and café facilities will be available in the College.
  • The queue is admitted to the Chapel from 1:30pm.
  • The service begins at 3:00pm and lasts until shortly after 4:30pm.
  • At the end of the service there is an opportunity to contribute to the retiring collection, which is for the maintenance of the Chapel.
  • Some people bring chairs to make their queuing more comfortable. It is not possible to take large items into the Chapel and so we ask people to leave all such items under the arch of the Gibbs’ Building during the service.

Unable to queue

We offer a very limited number of reserved places in the Ante-Chapel for people unable to queue because of disability or illness.  If you wish to be considered for a maximum of three tickets, please write to the Dean enclosing a stamped, self-addressed envelope.  This year we have already had a large number of requests and so are bringing forward the deadline for such requests to Saturday 13th October.  This will allow us to give more notice to both successful and unsuccessful applicants.  You will receive your tickets (or a note explaining that we are sorry to disappoint) by 1st November 2017.  We regret that we are unable to enter into email correspondence on this subject. 

Helping the Chapel and Choir

We receive no funding from national or local organisations to help us pay for the Chapel and Choir. Please consider helping us to maintain the 500 year-old Chapel and its great musical tradition by donating online.

History of the service

Chapel service, Christmas 1964

Christmas, 1964

Our Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols was first held on Christmas Eve 1918. It was planned by Eric Milner-White, who at the age of 34 had just been appointed Dean of King's, after experience as an army chaplain which had convinced him that the Church of England needed more imaginative worship.

A revision of the Order of Service was made in 1919, involving rearrangement of the lessons, and from that date the service has always begun with the hymn 'Once in Royal David's City'.

The service was first broadcast in 1928 and, with the exception of 1930, has been broadcast annually, even during the Second World War, when the ancient glass (and also all heat) had been removed from the Chapel.

Sometime in the early 1930's the BBC began broadcasting the service on the World Service. It is estimated that there are millions of listeners worldwide, including those to Radio Four in the United Kingdom.

In recent years it has become the practice to broadcast a digital recording on Christmas Day on Radio Three, and since 1963, a shorter service, which uses different music and readings, has been filmed periodically for television.

There is also a more detailed history of the service.

Service booklets from previous years

Orders of service for A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from 1997 onwards:

Commissioned carols

When Stephen Cleobury came to King's in 1982 he was keen to demonstrate a commitment to contemporary music for the College's liturgies. He decided that one way of doing this would be to commission a new carol each year for inclusion in A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols; thus a new tradition was born.

The first composer to be commissioned was Lennox Berkeley, and amongst those who have followed him are, Thomas Adés, Judith Bingham, James Macmillan and John Rutter, to name but a few. A CD recording of the commissioned carols entitled, 'On Christmas Day: New carols from King's' was released by EMI in 2005.

Commissioned carol 2016

Michael Berkeley composes Christmas commissioned carol. See the news story.

Commissioned carol 2015

Richard Causton, Fellow in Music at King’s, set a new poem by George Szirtes to music for his carol called The Flight. See the news story

Commissioned carol 2014

Carl Rütti set to music the medieval hymn 'De Virgine Maria'. See the archived news story.

Commissioned carol 2013

Thea Musgrave wrote a setting of the William Blake poem 'Hear the voice of the Bard' (1794). See the archived news story.

Commissioned carol 2012

Australian composer Carl Vine wrote this year's carol, which was a setting of Tennyson's poem 'Ring Out, Wild Bells'. For Vine, the poem 'inventively encapsulates the core Christian principles of community, generosity and kindness.'

Commissioned carol 2011

This year's commissioned carol was a setting of Christina Rossetti's 'Christmas Eve' by Tansy Davies - see the news story about it.

Commissioned carol 2010

The Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara composed the commissioned carol for 2010, which was simply called 'Christmas Carol'.

Commissioned carol 2009

This year the composer Gabriel Jackson has used G K Chesterton's 'The Christ Child Sat On Mary's Lap' as the text for his carol. Gabriel is a leading composer of choral music who has written pieces for the BBC, the Tate Gallery and the National Centre for Early Music.

He said: 'While writing the piece I was thinking all the time about the wondrous space that is the King's Chapel, the special atmosphere of the service, the acoustic of the building, and the unique sound of the King's choir in that building. Now that it is finished I cannot wait for Christmas Eve, to be there in the Chapel at King's and to hear my piece quietly take its place in the age-old rite, as Stephen and his choir work their magic once again.'

Commissioned carol 2008

This year the commission has gone to the British composer Dominic Muldowney. Muldowney has written extensively for film and television, including scores for 1984 (1984), Sharpe's Eagle (1993) and King Lear (1997). He has also written concert pieces, including a piano concerto and a saxophone concerto, and he has worked with pop musicians such as Sting and David Bowie. For this year's carol Muldowney has used an early text by Berthold Brecht about the Virgin Mary.

Commissioned carol 2007

The commission for the Festival in 2007 went to the Australian composer, Brett Dean and his composition, which uses a poem by Richard Watson Gilder, was broadcast live on BBC Radio 4 on Christmas Eve.

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