What is the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols – and what is the order of service?

24 December 2018, 15:08 | Updated: 24 December 2018, 15:32

This Christmas Eve marks the 100th anniversary of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, performed by the Choir of King’s College Cambridge live from King’s College Chapel.

Every year, the King’s College Chapel Choir performs a carol service that is broadcast on UK radio on Christmas Eve – and this year marks its 100th anniversary.

The service will go live on Christmas Eve at 3pm. It finishes just in time for the choristers to gather round a television to watch their separate televised programme, Carols from King’s – which will be broadcast on TV around the world at 5.50pm.

While the other carols vary from year to year, the opening carol in the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is always ‘Once in Royal David’s City’.

A chorister is famously chosen to sing the solo in ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ at the last second. The choirmaster decides whose voice is sounding strongest on the day – and points at the chosen soloist just as the broadcast begins.

Chorister Rehearse For A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols At Kings College Cambridge
Chorister Rehearse For A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols At Kings College Cambridge. Picture: Getty

Since 1982, music director Stephen Cleobury has commissioned a new carol for the service. For the 2018 service, the carol will be ‘O Mercy Divine’, with words by Charles Wesley and music by Judith Weir.

What is the history of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols?

Loved by millions, the Festival of Nine Lesson and Carols is a traditional part of the run-up to Christmas for many families.

The original service, first heard at King's College Chapel in 1918, was devised by E. W. Benson, the first Bishop of Truro and later Archbishop of Canterbury.

According to his son A. C. Benson (who wrote the words to Elgar's 'Land of Hope and Glory'), his father "arranged from ancient sources a little service for Christmas Eve – nine carols and nine tiny lessons, which were read by various officers of the Church, beginning with a chorister, and ending, through the different grades, with the Bishop."

But it was Eric Milner-White, Dean of King's College Cambridge, who brought the service to the masses. Deciding that the Festival would be more uplifting than Evensong on Christmas Eve, he set up the Festival as an annual occurrence at King's College Chapel and achieve instant popularity, spreading his new idea to schools, chapels and churches around the world.

The preface to this year's Order of Service states: "Wherever the service is heard and however it is adapted, whether the music is provided by choir or congregation, the pattern and strength of the service, as Milner-White pointed out, derive from the lessons and not the music.

"‘The main theme is the development of the loving purposes of God …’ seen ‘through the windows and the words of the Bible’."

Buy and listen to the choir's new album here – 100 Years of Nine Lessons & Carols with Stephen Cleobury, Choir of King's College, Cambridge, Sir David Willcocks & Philip Ledger