A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols

Cover of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols booklet 2014

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.

Download the 2014 booklet

You can also download the booklets from previous years.

Note: another carol service, Carols from King's, is recorded for television earlier in December and broadcast by BBC2 on Christmas Eve. The service is for members of the College and is by invitation only.

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

If you would like to attend the service, please join the queue at the main entrance to the College. Normally anyone joining the queue before 9am will get in, but we cannot guarantee this. The queue is admitted into the Chapel at 1.30pm and the service begins at 3pm. The service ends at around 4.30pm. Please note that the service is not suitable for young children.  There is no charge for attending, as with any service in the Chapel.  A retiring collection is taken after the service for the maintenance of the Chapel.

Arrangements for those who want to queue are as follows:

  1. The only entrance to the College will be via the main gate on King's Parade. All other gates will be locked.
  2. Members of the public in the queue will be admitted to the College grounds via the front gate from 7.30am.
  3. The Porters will monitor the number of people joining the queue and, once there are as many people in the queue as there are seats available, members of the public will be advised that it is unlikely that they will be able to attend the service.
  4. Bags and packages cannot be taken into the Chapel and must be deposited with the Porters in the designated area.
  5. Once inside the College grounds toilet facilities are available and refreshments can be purchased from the College coffee shop.

There are a limited number of seats available for those unable to queue because of disability or illness. Demand for these places are high each year and those wishing to apply for tickets should write, by 31 October, to:

The PA to the Dean
King's College

Email: dean@kings.cam.ac.uk

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 Ad├ęs, 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 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.

  • Listen to Brett Dean's carol:

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