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

Attendance at the service is by ticket only, many of which were allocated by public ballot.  One hundred 'standby tickets' are also being issued to others who applied in the ballot. No one without a standby ticket will be allowed to join the standby queue, so please do not come to the College hoping to attend if you do not have a ticket of any kind.

Those who do have been allocated tickets are invited to bear the following points in mind:

  • Tickets may be collected from the Porters' Lodge at any time before the service. I ask you, if possible, to collect before the 24th. If you can only collect on the day, please try to do so before 1.30pm.
  • If your circumstances change and you cannot attend after all, please email me and we will reallocate your tickets. 
  • Please aim to be seated in Chapel well before 2.40 pm.
  • Tickets for the service are specifically for the people who applied for them. Please do not pass them on as that could cause great embarrassment when they are asked to show photo ID on the day.
  • Similarly, it is not possible to admit children of any age, including babies, who do not have tickets.
  • If a child is your second ticket holder, please be confident that they will be able to enjoy this specific occasion, which is focussed on attentive listening to words and music. On Christmas Day we have a lovely service at 11.00am when we welcome families to attend and enjoy all the energy that very young people bring.
  • We expect members of the congregation to remain in their seats for at least two hours and we have no accessible toilets near the Chapel. 
  • We make every effort to ensure that this is a comfortable and safe experience for us all and that therefore large bags or luggage or shopping may not be brought into College on this occasion. You may bring a small handbag but nothing larger than 30cm x 25cm will be allowed in; and we do not offer any storage faciltiies.
  • And as always in King’s Chapel, photography, videography and audio recording are not permitted during services. Please come ready to turn off your phone and fully absorb all the occasion has to offer.

Stephen Cherry

Dean of Chapel 

Listening to the Service

A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is broadcast live 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 BBC Radio 3 on Christmas Day.

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