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 service 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.

The service includes 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.

Festival of Nine Lessons 2023 Order of Service

Attending in Person

A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols was first conceived as a gift to the City of Cambridge and it is that spirit that the College makes approximately half the tickets for this service available to members of the public. Tickets are distributed in advance to those who are successful in the annual ballot.

The ballot for tickets opens on Friday 1 November at 9.00am and closes on Friday 15 November at 5.00pm. Applications should be made via the online form but the College will also enter those who write to the Dean by post. If you write you should include an email address or a stamped addressed envelope for your reply.

Each application may be for one or two tickets only and must:

  • Include the name of both people who wish to attend;
  • Include an email address or phone number;
  • Be submitted by 5.00pm on Friday 15 November.

One individual may only make one application and multiple applications, or those which show the same email address will not be entered into the ballot.

The Reverend Dr Stephen Cherry

Dean of Chapel 

Listening to the Service

A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and the BBC World Service on 24 December at 3pm (10:00 EST or 07:00 PST). The service is also broadcast at 1pm on Radio 3 on Christmas Day, and at various times on the BBC World Service.

In the United States the service is distributed by American Public Media and is broadcast by over 400 radio stations, including Minnesota Public Radio and WQXR in New York. As there is no list of radio stations that are broadcasting the service it's best to contact your local stations or check their online listings.

Carols and War

A reflection from the Dean of Chapel

At 3:00 pm on Christmas Eve, our beautiful Chapel will be full, all the candles will be glowing and the organ gently playing. After a while the organ will fall silent and the keenly expected words, ‘Once, in royal David’s city’ will float not only the length of the Chapel but around the globe. When that carol ends, the Bidding will invite millions of people to go ‘in heart and mind even unto Bethlehem’.

Bethlehem is of course that ‘royal David's city’, and later in the service we will sing of it as a ‘little town’ enjoying a ‘deep and dreamless sleep’. This year that sentiment might be particularly apt because the city’s authorities have cancelled Christmas celebrations as a response to the war in Gaza and the heightened tensions in other Palestinian areas. Religious ceremonies will continue; nonetheless the civically imposed restraint invites us to stop and reflect on the story of our carol service, and to ask how it connects to life’s painful realities as well as to its joys and delights.

Our Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols was born out of the ashes of the First World War, and while the service was not new in 1918, the Bidding was. It carefully placed the lessons and carols in the context of the many who suffer and refers to the huge cloud of war-inflicted bereavement when it mentions those ‘who rejoice with us but on another shore and in a greater light’.

The Bidding was written after the war had ended and reflects a post-war mentality. But this year, with daily news of huge civilian casualties in Gaza in our ears, the horror of the massacre of October 7th and concern about the hostages still on our minds, and with the situation in Ukraine and in countless other warzones further from our shores routinely shaping our prayers in Chapel, it is all too clear that war is ongoing.

This year’s Bidding therefore includes an additional sentence, inviting all who hear to hold in their hearts those enduring the depredations and travails of war. And, because hatred has such a powerful role in fuelling violent conflict and paving the way for atrocity, it will urge us all to remember ‘the hated’ alongside ‘the oppressed’.

There is no more powerful reason to believe in the fundamental dignity and importance of each and every human being than the doctrine rooted in the final lesson at our service, which proclaims that, ‘the word was made flesh’, that is ‘God became human’. This declares that God embraces the human condition in the fullness of its vulnerability – the same vulnerability that is cruelly exploited by those who invade, those who occupy, those who take hostages, those who torture, oppress, exploit, or abuse.

The months and years to come will be deeply burdened and terribly scarred by the events of 2023 but it remains true that human vulnerability is there to be embraced, cradled, and, by the power of loving attention, turned into the deepest and most mysterious strength: a power that is most unlike the power of the powerful.

The Christmas story conveys extraordinary messages: the meaning of the word ‘God’ is not found in power but powerlessness; the image of God is not a venerable old gentleman in a palace, but a child shivering in a barn; what brings light to the world is not the resolving of all our problems, or the ending of all our conflicts, but the belief that God can be with us transformatively in our precarity and in our pain.

That is why the angels sing, and why we will on Christmas Eve make King’s College Chapel, and the millions who tune in to share the service with us, glad with our carols of praise.

Stephen Cherry, 20 December 2023

Nine Lessons and Carols Archive