King’s College Chapel: Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols

It’s one of Britain’s best loved traditions, watched by millions on TV and radio. The first Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols took place at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, in 1918. Since then, the annual service has become an integral part of the festive season

It’s one of Britain’s best loved traditions, watched by millions on TV and radio. The first Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols took place at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, in 1918. Since then, the annual service has become an integral part of the festive season.

In the words of the service booklet, the ceremony tells the story of “the loving purposes of God” through a combination of carols and carefully selected readings from the King James Bible.

“I think it has become a British institution,” agrees Stephen Cleobury, Director of Music at King’s College, Cambridge, the person tasked with arranging the service and directing the choir. “It is very widely broadcast and is very well known. I get a lot of letters and emails from people around the world saying how much they enjoy the service. The public feel that it belongs to them. They have a stake in it.”

Cleobury is passionate about the Festival, which he has been part of since taking over as Director of Music in 1982. He puts his love of music down to coming from a musical family. His father played the piano and organ, and his mother was an amateur choral singer. He went on to become a chorister in Worcester and studied the organ at Cambridge University. Prior to joining King’s College, he held the prestigious positions of sub-organist at Westminster Abbey and Master of Music at Westminster Cathedral. Cleobury thinks all of this provided good preparation for his work at King’s.

Yet despite his many years of experience, Cleobury admits it was a nerve-wracking prospect to become part of the celebrated Festival – and that it can still be daunting for both him and the choir. “You get over that through very careful preparation,” he says. “We hone general skills daily, though for the carol service reportoire, we generally prepare during December itself. That involves not only preparation of the carols, but also psychological preparation for the service.”

The enduring nature of the Festival is partly down to its iconic moments, such as the lone chorister singing the first verse of opening hymn ‘Once in Royal David’s City’, and partly due to the beautiful setting of King’s College Chapel. But it’s also because the service remains faithful to its past without being set in stone – highlighted by the fact that Cleobury commissions a new carol from a different composer each year. “I thought it was important to add something new to the service, so it could remain traditional but not fossilised,” he says. “It helps it to reach out to new people. I always think of it as an ancient tree which has a trunk and roots. The service has roots in the past, but it is still growing new leaves.”

Though he admits not everybody has been a fan of the new carols, he feels they’ve been incredibly lucky with the ones that have been composed over the years. While each new carol is different, they are united by a festive theme with serious undertones: “They can’t just be about tinsel and wrapping paper!” This year, Cleobury is excited to announce a carol by the Bristol-born composer Tansy Davies – though, he has yet to hear it. “I commission the carols but don’t really know what they’ll turn out like until the last minute!” he says.

Of course, the traditional hymns and carols remain an essential part of the service’s appeal. While the arrangement does change each year, the Festival always begins with the hymn ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ and closes with ‘Hark the Herald Angel Sing’. “I inherited those when I started, and I didn’t see any reason to change it,” Cleobury says. “They’re two of the best known hymns and I think the lyrics resonate with people, whatever they believe in. ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ is, of course, about the birth of Jesus, and the theme of a baby’s birth is something that resonates with most people. I had a grandchild recently and, strangely enough, [‘Once in Royal David’s City’ hymn writer] Mrs Alexander’s beautiful words came into my head. ‘Tears and smiles like us he knew.’ The words mean a lot to people.”

Cleobury thinks it is important for the Festival to resonate with people who perhaps wouldn’t usually attend church services. “I think that’s very crucial, because many can respond to elements in it who do not wish to participate in formal or official church organisations. The service can affect everyone – Christians, Buddhists, agnostics and atheists, and the message of the service has different potential for each individual.”

This wide appeal is helped by the fact it has been televised since 1963. It’s actually a different service to the one that takes place in the Chapel on Christmas Eve, with seven lessons instead of nine and additional carols. It’s filmed a few weeks before it is broadcast. Cleobury doesn’t find it unusual to be conducting a Christmas service a few weeks before the actual day. “I think most people are gearing up for Christmas by mid-December and many schools have had their Christmas services by then of course. I have certainly done stranger things, though – like recording a CD of Christmas songs in August in the South of France. Now that did feel odd!”

In 2009, Cleobury’s services to music were recognised when he was awarded a CBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honour’s List. However, he’s well aware that any musical service is more than about one person. “I know it’s a cliché, but I saw it as recognition not just for myself but for everyone I have worked with. Nobody achieves anything without the help of others.”

There are 650 seats for the Christmas Eve service of Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. They are available for the residents of Cambridge and the wider public. However, demand for seats is extremely high, so if you want to attend the service it’s best to get there early. The public are admitted to the main gate on King’s Parade from 7.30am, and as you queue you’ll be entertained by the Choral Scholars of King’s College Choir singing carols. The service itself starts just after 3pm. The televised Festival, however, is a private service for members of the college, so you won’t be able to attend this one!

Stephen Cleobury is always on the lookout for potential new members of the choir. For more information, visit or email