What is the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols?

The history of King's College Cambridge's iconic Christmas service, broadcast across the world

The Kings choristers enter the chapel

For many people, the Festival Nine Lessons And Carols refers to the service that is broadcast on Radio 4 from the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, every Christmas Eve.

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Taking place at 3pm, the service always begins with Once in Royal David’s City, the first verse of which is sung as a solo by a boy treble. After that, the service consists of the reading of nine lessons, taken from various books of the Bible and covering the main themes of the Nativity story.

In between come various pieces of music. These may be carols sung just by King’s College Choir, or may be hymns involving the whole congregation. In recent years, a tradition of always including a brand new work has been set in place.

The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols has been taking place at King’s College since 1918, and was first broadcast by the BBC in 1928. However, the format itself goes back earlier than this. It was, in fact, in Truro, Cornwall on 24 December 1880 that the Right Rev. Edward White Benson, Bishop of Truro, led the first Nine Lessons and Carols service.

Benson’s attention at the time was to give the local people something to distract them from spending the evening in the pub, and the venue of the service was surprisingly modest – with the city’s new Cathedral still under construction, it took place in a temporary wooden building holding just 400 people.

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About Jeremy Pound

Jeremy Pound is currently BBC Music Magazine’s acting editor, having initially joined the magazine as deputy editor in August 2004. Before that he was the features editor of Classic CD magazine, and has written for a colourful array of publications ranging from Music Teacher to History Revealed, Total Football and Environment Action; in 2018, he edited and co-wrote The King’s Singers: Gold 50th anniversary book A former chorister at New College, Oxford, he later returned to the same university to study classics. Choral music remains a particular passion, as do early 20th-century English composers.