Christmas carols are woven into the fabric of the festive season and are the essential musical element amid the celebrations. It really would not be Christmas without them.
We are therefore thrilled to bring you a wonderful compilation of carols, composers, performers and lyrics. Plus we suggest some must-have music for your carols collection. For greater detail on each carol, including the lyrics, click on our Carols: History & Lyrics page. First, the essential list of 50 carols we believe should be on everyone’s festive playlist.
1 – “O Holy Night” 2 – “Silent Night” 3 – “In The Bleak Midwinter” (Holst) 4 – “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” 5 – “In The Bleak Midwinter” (Darke) 6 – “O Come All Ye Faithful” (“Adeste Fidelis”) 7 – “O Little Town of Bethlehem” 8 – “Once in Royal David’s City” 9 – “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” 10 – “Carol of the Bells” 11 – “Ding Dong Merrily on High” 12 – “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” 13 – “Joy to the World” 14 – “Away in a Manger” 15 – “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” 16 – “Coventry Carol” 17 – “The Three Kings” 18 – “Sussex Carol” 19 – “The Holly and the Ivy” 20 – “Gaudete” 21 – “In Dulci Jubilo” 22 – “Candlelight Carol” 23 – “Gabriel’s Message” 24 – “See Amid the Winter’s Snow” 25 – “Angel’s Carol” 26 – “The First Noel” 27 – “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree” 28 – “Shepherd’s Pipe Carol” 29 – “What Sweeter Music” 30 – “Still, Still, Still” 31 – “What Child is This?” 32 – “Good King Wenceslas” 33 – “Angels We Have Heard on High” 34 – “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks” 35 – “Deck the Halls” 36 – “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” 37 – “We Three Kings of Orient Are” 38 – “As With Gladness Men of Old” 39 – “Wexford Carol” 40 – “Boar’s Head Carol” 41 – “Angels from the Realms of Glory” 42 – “Good Christian Men Rejoice” 43 – “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day” 44 – “I Saw Three Ships” 45 – “Sans Day Carol” 46 – “Unto Us is Born a Son” 47 – “A Spotless Rose” 48 – “Star Carol” 49 – “The Truth Sent From Above” 50 – “There is No Rose of Such Virtue”
1 – “O Holy Night”
2 – “Silent Night”
3 – “In The Bleak Midwinter” (Holst)
4 – “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”
5 – “In The Bleak Midwinter” (Darke)
6 – “O Come All Ye Faithful” (“Adeste Fidelis”)
7 – “O Little Town of Bethlehem”
8 – “Once in Royal David’s City”
9 – “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”
10 – “Carol of the Bells”
11 – “Ding Dong Merrily on High”
12 – “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”
13 – “Joy to the World”
14 – “Away in a Manger”
15 – “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”
16 – “Coventry Carol”
17 – “The Three Kings”
18 – “Sussex Carol”
19 – “The Holly and the Ivy”
20 – “Gaudete”
21 – “In Dulci Jubilo”
22 – “Candlelight Carol”
23 – “Gabriel’s Message”
24 – “See Amid the Winter’s Snow”
25 – “Angel’s Carol”
26 – “The First Noel”
27 – “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree”
28 – “Shepherd’s Pipe Carol”
29 – “What Sweeter Music”
30 – “Still, Still, Still”
31 – “What Child is This?”
32 – “Good King Wenceslas”
33 – “Angels We Have Heard on High”
34 – “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks”
35 – “Deck the Halls”
36 – “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”
37 – “We Three Kings of Orient Are”
38 – “As With Gladness Men of Old”
39 – “Wexford Carol”
40 – “Boar’s Head Carol”
41 – “Angels from the Realms of Glory”
42 – “Good Christian Men Rejoice”
43 – “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day”
44 – “I Saw Three Ships”
45 – “Sans Day Carol”
46 – “Unto Us is Born a Son”
47 – “A Spotless Rose”
48 – “Star Carol”
49 – “The Truth Sent From Above”
50 – “There is No Rose of Such Virtue”
Carols – A Brief History:
Carols were first sung in Europe thousands of years ago, marking such pagan celebrations as the winter solstice. Early Christians switched celebratory focus to the birth of Jesus Christ with carols sung in Latin – although it wasn’t until St. Francis of Assisi introduced the notion of Nativity plays in the 13th century that songs were sung in native languages, with audiences encouraged to join in. Communal carol singing was born. Through the ages in the UK, festive songs were given life at home, in streets and public houses by wassailers and carollers. Carols found their comfortable place in churches from the early 19th century, which was the golden era for carol creation, rescue and rearrangement.
Elf Helper: You will have the opportunity to vote for your favourite carol at classicfm.com as year’s end approaches. See how you can impact the radio station’s top 30 and listen out for the results on Christmas Day on Classic FM.
“Carols from King’s” – Choir of King’s College, Cambridge
No Christmas is complete without the gorgeous strains of the choir of King’s College flowing through the house. The enchanting service from King’s College, Cambridge was first held on Christmas Eve 1918. Eric Milner-White (1884-1963), the Dean of the college, introduced it to help mark the end of World War I. Ten years later, the BBC broadcast the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols for the first time. It can still be heard on BBC Radio4 at 3pm on Christmas Eve and Carols from King’s can be seen later the same day on BBC2. The tradition of starting the service with “Once in Royal David’s City” continues to this day. Many festive albums by the celebrated Choir of King’s are available to buy or download, including the 2014 “Favourite Carols from King’s”. In 2018, a special two-disc album was released on the college’s own label celebrating the centenary of Nine Lessons & Carols. Ownership of at least one King’s collection is a must if you are collating a Christmas music library. There are more details on the wonderful tradition from King’s at the foot of this page.
“The John Rutter Christmas Album”; “John Rutter: The Colours of Christmas” & “The John Rutter Songbook”
Gifted composer, conductor and arranger John Rutter is synonymous with choral music – especially festive works. He has crafted so many uplifting Christmas pieces like “What Sweeter Music”, “Angel Carol” and “Shepherd’s Pipe Carol”. Christmas 2014 saw the release of the two-disc album “The John Rutter Songbook”, comprising 40 personal selections made by the great man. Disc One has 20 of his favourite pieces of seasonal music, including the new carol “Christ is the Morning Star”. Disc Two contains 20 of Rutter’s works suitable for all-year-long listening like “The Lord Bless You and Keep You” and “A Gaelic Blessing”. “The Colours of Christmas” album includes “Star Carol”, “I Wonder as I Wander” and the title track among a host of traditional favourites. John Rutter has to be part of your Christmas. His albums are available for purchase or download and a selection of his music can be heard all December long on Classic FM.
“Christmas” – Voces8
Voces8 are eight voices in gorgeous unison who released this festive album in August 2012. This is a cappella tranquillity and beauty on 18 tracks from a remarkably versatile vocal group. Look out also for their 2014 album “Eventide” – perfect for the transition from Christmas to the wintery solemnity of January and beyond.
“Jingle Wells: Christmas Music from Wells Cathedral”
Having a selection of carolling albums is key to ensure a variety of songs, tunes and arrangements. Wells Cathedral Choir starts this album with, what else, but “Jingle Bells” and also delivers favourites like “The Holly and the Ivy” and “Silent Night”. But Wells also offer something different in Eric Whitacre’s “Lux Aurumque” and Peter Gritton’s “Follow That Star”. Gramophone’s verdict on this album’s release in 2012 was: “Wells’s burgeoning reputation as one of the best cathedral choirs in the country is further bolstered by the faultless tuning and blend of the strong and broad sound for which its boys are known.” Working to something akin to an Olympic cycle, Christmas 2016 saw the Wells Cathedral Choir produce another pleasing seasonal album entitled: “A Wells Christmas: Music for Christmas”.
Christmas at St George’s Windsor
The Choir of St George’s Chapel, famous for its royal patronage, released this seasonal album for Christmas 2019. The beautiful choral works are suited to Advent, Christmas and Epiphany. Released on Hyperion, the album is entitled “Christmas at St George’s Windsor” and was Classic FM’s album of the week in the first week of December 2019. Among the works included are Ukrainian song “Carol of the Bells” and William Byrd’s “Vigilate”. The choir, directed by James Vivian and comprising 23 boy choristers and 12 lay clerks, performed at both royal weddings at St George’s Chapel, Windsor in 2018.
“Christmas with St. John’s” – St. John’s College Choir, Cambridge
Presenting new music to a wider audience is something at which St. John’s College Choir, Cambridge excels – and is ably demonstrated in its 2016 Christmas album of contemporary choral works. “Christmas with St. John’s” features two works commissioned by the choir: Judith Bingham’s “The Clouded Heaven” and Michael Finissy’s “John the Baptist”. It ends with “Creator of the Stars of Night”, composed by former St. John’s organ scholar John Scott. The choir has been a foundation block of English choral tradition since the 1670’s and its distinct sound continues to be nurtured on this album by director Andrew Nethsinga, who has also managed to add his own sumptuous stamp to recordings.
“Yulesfest! – Christmas Music from Trinity College Cambridge”
Festive choral music delivered in shimmering gold by Trinity College Cambridge, conducted by Stephen Layton. This 2015 Hyperion Records release has 21 Christmas tracks to enjoy, some old, some new and some with sparkling, fresh arrangements. Indeed four pieces by the talented Owain Park, Trinity’s Senior Organ Scholar, are featured – including the first recordings of his arrangements of “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day”, “Shepherds’ Cradle Song” and our particular favourite “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”. We also love the choir’s performance of “Sleigh Ride”. Take a listen: you’ll know Yule has arrived.
“A Festival of Fanfares and Carols” – The Cory Band
This brilliant Welsh brass ensemble delivers a host of quality arrangements including our particular favourite, the superb “Box of Delights” from “A Carol Symphony”. The Cory Band hails from the Rhondda Valley in Wales and was formed in 1884, making it one of the oldest brass bands in the world today – and very much one of the best. Joining the band on this recording are their neighbours The Treorchy Male Choir, as well as The International Songsters of The Salvation Army. Other tracks on the album include “The Snow Carol”; “Gaudete”; “The Irish Carol”; “Unto Us is Born a Son”; “Candlelight Carol” and “Mary’s Boy Child”.
“A Christmas Present from Polyphony”
The delight of this splendid Christmas present from Polyphony and Stephen Layton comes from the beautiful renditions of some of the more obscure Yuletide works like “A Hymn to the Virgin” by Benjamin Britten, “Magnificat” by Arvo Part, “Sing Lullaby” by Herbert Howells, “Lullaby My Jesus” by Peter Warlock and “Ave, Maris Stella” by Edvard Grieg. Stephen Layton founded the critically acclaimed Polyphony choir in 1986 and American magazine “Encore” once reviewed them thus: “Possibly the best small professional choir in the world.” In 2006, Layton became Director of Music at Trinity College, Cambridge and three years later was appointed the City of London Sinfonia’s Artistic Director and Principal Conductor.
“Carols with St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir”
In 2015, Classic FM presented St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir’s first Christmas album in a decade – and it was more than worth the wait. There are 19 tracks on this Decca collection, highlighted by such traditional favourites as “Silent Night”, “In the Bleak Midwinter”, “O Holy Night” and “O Come All Ye Faithful”. But there is also new material to savour, delivered from the heart of London under the direction of Andrew Carwood. A particular joy is the performance of Philip Stopford’s stunning setting of the 16th century “Lully Lulla Lullay”. And it’s so pleasing to hear Graham Jordan Ellis’s captivating but rarely recorded “There is No Rose” and the magnificent “All Bells in Paradise” by John Rutter. St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir formed some 900 years ago.
“Howard Goodall’s Enchanted Carols” – Howard Goodall’s Enchanted Singers
Howard Goodall, for some time Classic FM’s composer in residence, is an internationally renowned composer of great versatility. His TV theme tunes include “Blackadder” and “The Vicar of Dibley” and he’s written EMMY award-winning and BAFTA-nominated film scores. His Enchanted Voices lay their own festive magic on traditional Advent and Christmas carols, as well as six original carols. Enchantment unconfined.
“Carols & Christmas Songs” – Sir Bryn Terfel
This is a stunning two-disc collection from marvellous Welsh tenor Sir Bryn Terfel, one of the most prized jewels in the British classical music crown who was knighted in the Queen’s 2017 New Year’s Honours List. Terfel is joined on Disc One by tenor Rolando Villazon and harpist Katrin Finch and adds his considerable talent to Bing Crosby’s original vocals on “White Christmas”. The nine songs on Disc Two are in Welsh. Triumphant highlights include Terfel’s wonderful version of “Still, Still, Still” and the gorgeously arranged “Away in a Manger”.
“Christmas from Worcester: A Tribute to Sir David Willcocks” – Choir of Worcester Cathedral
This 2016 recording features 23 of Sir David Willcocks’ best-loved arrangements for Christmas, sung by the Choir of Worcester Cathedral. Willcocks, who died in September 2015, was one of the most influential choirmasters of his age. Between 1950 and 1957 he was organist at Worcester Cathedral before going on to find great acclaim with the choir of King’s College, Cambridge. Among the treasured pieces on this album are “Cherry Tree Carol”; “Rocking”; “I Saw Three Ships”; “Once in Royal David’s City”; “The Infant King” and “Away in a Manger”.
“Carols from Queen’s” – Choir of Queen’s College, Oxford
Carols from King’s is an essential part of any collection – and we think this marvellous gift of a 2015 collection from Queen’s should be, too. Many of the seasonal pieces on this album, directed by Owen Rees, have deep associations with the renowned institution of Queen’s College, Oxford, especially “The Boar’s Head Carol”, “The Three Kings”, “A Spotless Rose” and “In the Bleak Midwinter”. Several of the composers and arrangers of carols featured had direct links with the college. “The Boar’s Head Carol” originated at Queen’s in the 14th century and has been sung every year since at the Boar’s Head Feast in the College Hall as a boar’s head is brought forth on a silver platter. Harold Darke (“In the Bleak Midwinter”) and Ivor Atkins (“The Three Kings”) were both members of Queen’s – and prominent 20th century British composers Kenneth Leighton (“Lully, Lulla, Thou Little Tiny Child”) and Herbert Howells (“A Spotless Rose”) both studied there. This is a 22-track collection of the highest quality and comes highly recommended.
“Christmas from Selwyn” – Choir of Selwyn College, Cambridge
A Cambridge college choir of considerable repute delivers a delicious mix of festive old and new. Alongside classic carols like “We Three Kings” and “Hark! The Herald-Angels Sing” are fresh close-harmony arrangements by the Selwyn choir’s director Sarah MacDonald of more contemporary tunes “White Christmas”, “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” and “Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town”. This album was released in 2016 to critical acclaim.
“Twelve Days of Christmas” – The King’s Men
The King’s Men are the close-harmony vocal group formed by the older choral scholars from the famous King’s College, Cambridge – and this showcases the lighter side of their Christmas repertoire. Nine Lessons and Carols this most certainly is not. Expect instead “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer”, “Santa Baby”, “I Wish it Could be Christmas”, Pat Dunachie taking on Mariah with “All I Want for Christmas is You” and an inspired version of the title track. Unlike many close-harmony groups, the King’s Men record together rather than capturing each voice individually. They balance their voices acoustically and “Twelve Days of Christmas” is the scrumptious result.
“The Rose in the Middle of Winter: Carols by Bob Chilcott”
Bob Chilcott’s 2013 Christmas album received almost universal acclaim. The choral works, sung by Commotio, are stunning. It is a collection you can enjoy well into the New Year as this rose of an album eases you through the winter darkness.
“One Voice at Christmas” – Aled Jones
On this 2016 release, Aled again duets with his younger self – just as he did earlier that year on his No.1 album “One Voice”. The third and final album in the series is the 2017 “One Voice: Believe”. The concept was made possible by the discovery of the last ever recordings made by Aled as a boy. “One Voice at Christmas” includes a new Howard Blake arrangement of Aled’s childhood hit “Walking in the Air” and such seasonal favourites as “O Holy Night” and “Away in a Manger”. The album also includes Aled’s duet with the late Sir Terry Wogan on “Little Drummer Boy” and a duet with guitarist John Williams on “Silent Night”. Aled first promoted his new Christmas album at 18,000 feet on a jet plane between Cardiff and London. For the first time, this popular Welsh performer was able to sing “Walking in the Air” while actually in the air – helped by his carol-singing passengers.
“Christmas from Tewkesbury” – Tewkesbury Abbey Schola Cantorum
Directed by Simon Bell, with Carleton Etherington on organ, this beautiful album by Tewkesbury Abbey Schola Cantorum includes such delights as “Adam Lay Ybounden”, “Ding Dong! Merrily on High”, “This is the Truth Sent from Above” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”. Since the Abbey School closed in 2006, the choristers – renowned for their Evensong during the week in school term time – have been educated at Dean Close Preparatory School in Cheltenham but continue their daily offering of worship at the Abbey.
“Libera – The Christmas Album”
The South London boys’ choir Libera was formed in 1999 and their first Christmas album is an angelic collection of popular, secular and sacred seasonal works. The 16 tracks include songs not widely covered on other seasonal albums: “Carol of the Bells”, “Corpus Christi Carol”, “Sing the Story” and “Jubilate Deo”. There is such purity of voice and haunting harmony in each and every song. A follow-up seasonal offering came in 2019 entitled “Christmas Carols With Libera”. Highlights include a splendid version of “In Dulci Jubilo”, Howard Blake’s “Walking in the Air” and beautifully melodic “Sing Lullaby”. There are 17 tracks in all.
“Christmas in Harvard Square” – Boys of St. Paul’s Choir School
Be transported into festive nirvana by the Boys of St.Paul’s Choir School and their angelic voices. “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree”, “Mater Ora Filium” and “Angels We Have Heard on High” are among the enchanting 19 tracks. This is a gem of a recording that will enhance any collection.
“Song of the Nativity” – The Sixteen and Harry Christophers
This wonderful album includes modern classics like John Rutter’s “There is a Flower”, Bob Chilcott’s “The Shepherd’s Carol” and James MacMillan’s “O Radiant Dawn” along with centuries old traditional carols. “The Saviour’s Carol”, “A Gallery Carol” and “Adam Lay Ybounden” are some of the older tunes on the album: less heard nowadays, but worthy of greater renown. The always splendid Sixteen and Harry Christophers have breathed new life into them in this wide-ranging anthology spanning some 600 years.
“Midwinter’s Eve: Music for Christmas” – The London Chamber Orchestra
This heavenly collection of seasonal music was arranged for and performed by The London Chamber Orchestra. There are seventeen instrumental tracks, opening with “Deck the Halls” before taking in such pieces as J.S. Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” and the Galician carol “Moita Festa” before concluding with “O Come, All Ye Faithful”. The dark midwinter was never so illuminated.
“The Manchester Carols” – The Manchester Carollers & Northern Chamber Orchestra
This collection of 16 new carols was written in 2007 by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy and composer Sasha Johnson Manning and premiered the same year. The album cover reads: “The Manchester Carols re-tell the Christmas Story for the 21st Century, celebrating a child’s birth and all that child was to become: a man who lived by a humble, selfless creed, championing the marginalised in a society which was, as it is now, fraught with political tensions. These carols are for everybody, the believer and the non-believer, people of other faiths and everyone wishing to join in the Christmas celebrations.” Performed by The Manchester Carollers and the Northern Chamber Orchestra with Richard Tanner at St. Thomas’ Church, Stockport, there are several delights including “The Trees”, “The Gold of Straw” and “Each Child’s Name”. But the repetitious nature of the lyrics in “The Advent Carol” and “Christmas Flowers” led us to conclude not every carol here is a welcome newcomer. The album has a modern lyrical edge and yet much of the music is imbued with tones of a bygone, sometimes even medieval, age.
“A Great British Christmas” – Gareth Malone
This is an innovative 2016 release from one of the UK’s favourite choirmasters Gareth Malone. For the album, Gareth travelled around the United Kingdom bringing together musicians from local communities. He recorded sessions with such performers as the Perranarworthal Handbell Ringers in Cornwall, the Hornsey Girls School Steel Pans Band in London and the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band in West Yorkshire. “A Great British Christmas” – a mixture of winter favourites and traditional Christmas songs in new arrangements – also features Malone working with the London Youth Choir, Belfast Community Choir, Birmingham Gospel Choir, the Invictus Choir in a rendition of the Dire Straits classic “Brothers in Arms” and his own choir Voices. Other contributors on the album include Ricky Wilson on the track “Paradise Street”, Fyfe Dangerfield on “Silent Night” and Welsh harpist Catrin Finch on “Walking in the Air”.
“Christmas with Septura”
Brass instruments and Christmas are a comfortable fit, right? Actually, few Christmas musical masterpieces are made for brass. Thankfully Septura set about rewriting history, recreating for brass septet some of the great Christmas works of the last 450 years. On the group’s website the Septura brass players asked themselves “what if the great Christmas music had been written for brass?” This album is their triumphant answer: what they call their “counterfactual Christmas”. The virtuosic collection includes works from Heinrich Schultz, Johannes Brahms and Sergey Rachmaninov as well as Harold Darke’s “In the Bleak Midwinter”, J.S. Bach’s “Christmas Suite” and Franz Gruber’s “Silent Night”. There are also excerpts from Handel’s “Messiah”. It’s altogether brilliantly bold and brassy.
Also consider streaming/downloading:
“See Amid the Winter’s Snow” – Guildford Cathedral Choir
“Good Christian Men Rejoice” – Guildford Cathedral Choir
“A Maiden Most Gentle” – Guildford Cathedral Choir
“Boars Head Carol” – Westminster Cathedral Choir
“Hob and Goblin” – Westminster Cathedral Choir
“We Wish You a Merry Christmas” – Choir of St. George’s Chapel Windsor
“King Jesus Hath a Garden” – Choir of St. George’s Chapel Windsor
“Unto Us A Son is Born” – Choir of Trinity College Cambridge
“Hereford Carol” – Choir of St. John’s College Cambridge
“Coventry Carol” – St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir
“Torches” – Lincoln Cathedral Choir
“Lully, Lulla, Lullay” – Truro Cathedral Choir
“Good King Wenceslas” – Regency College Choir
“Calypso Carol” – Saint Michael’s Singers, Coventry Cathedral
“There is No Rose” – The Sixteen with Harry Christophers
“Angels We Have Heard on High” – The Cambridge Singers
“Deck the Halls” – Treorchy Male Voice Choir
“The Three Kings” – Voces8
“Joys Seven” – The Sixteen & Harry Christophers
“Noel Nouvelet” – Vasari Singers
“The Stable Door” – Vasari Singers
“The Lamb” – The Choir of the Temple Church & Stephen Layton
“Patapan” – Robert Shaw Chorale
“The First Mercy” (Warlock) – Allegri Singers & Louis Halsey
“Past Three O’Clock” – Choir of King’s College, Cambridge
“All Bells in Paradise” – Choir of King’s College, Cambridge
“The Shepherd’s Carol” – Choir of King’s College, Cambridge
“Corpus Christi Carol” – Angelic Voices
“Infant Holy, Infant Lowly” – Salisbury Cathedral Choir
“All This Time” (Walton) – Bach Choir
“Lullaby My Jesus” – Choir of Winchester Cathedral & David Hill
“De Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy” – Cwmbach Male Choir
“Moita Festa” (A Galician carol – Pacheco) – The London Chamber Orchestra
“Star Candles” (Head) – Christopher Glynn & Ailish Tynan
“Birthday Carol” – Bach Choir & Sir David Willcocks
“O Little One Sweet” (JS Bach) – Choir of King’s College, Cambridge
Elf Helper: If you feel there are gaps in your carol collection, you can download or buy such albums as “100 Essential Carols and Hymns for Christmas” to achieve complete carolling comfort. Please note: “Hereford Carol” is not to be confused with “Herefordshire Carol”. They are distinct pieces. The latter is also known as “The Truth From Above”.
Carols from King’s
One of the most endearing and enduring British Christmas traditions is the annual Carols from King’s service at the magnificent Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge. There are radio and television versions on the BBC, with the former first broadcast in 1918 and entitled the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. British composer and conductor John Rutter, speaking in the BBC programme “60 Years of Carols from King’s” in December 2014, said: “The magic of the Carols from King’s broadcast is that for an enchanted hour and a half the world seems to stop and we’re in the realm of Christmas where everything is perfect.”
You might like to learn more about this service of enchantment: to share in the detail behind the Christmas perfection, so please read on.
King’s College, Cambridge dates back to the University College’s foundation by Henry VI in the 15th century.
The first Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s was held on Christmas Eve 1918 and was delivered by the Dean of the College Eric Milner-White. It was to help mark the end of World War I. However, the idea of a Nine Lessons and Carols service first took root in Truro, Cornwall as early as 1880 when Bishop Edward Benson formalised a simpler carol service of 1878. It was held in a temporary wooden structure while the new cathedral was being built.
Organisers point out that Carols from King’s is a service not a concert. They enforce that first and foremost it is about the worship of God.
Carols from King’s was first televised in 1954. It took its lead from the inaugural 1928 radio broadcast of the Festival of Nine Lessons but was tailored for television.
The service is built around the selection of readings, then the music is selected to complement them.
The first carol at the service is always “Once in Royal David’s City”. A soloist sings the opening line, so it is prestigious to secure this responsibility. With radio and TV broadcasts there are two opportunities each year to take this honour.
The first televised soloist in 1954 was Rodney Williams.
Stephen Cleobury, Director of Music at King’s College for 37 years, oversaw his last Christmas programmes in 2018 before retiring in 2019. Sadly, he died in November 2019 after a long illness. The Provost at King’s College, Professor Michael Proctor, said at the time the news was revealed: “The college community, and indeed many around the world, are mourning his passing with a profound feeling of loss.”
The choir comprises 14 choral scholars (undergraduates and post-graduates of King’s) and 17 boys. The boys join the choir aged eight and leave when they are 13.
Composer Bob Chilcott was a soloist three times on “Once in Royal David’s City” – a rare achievement. He was a chorister between 1964 and 1968 and returned to King’s as a choral scholar. He now has his festive music sung by the choir to complete a remarkable connection with the service. Chilcott said: “I never got the sounds of King’s College Chapel out of my head. It’s the most informing thing, the sonority…the kind of sonority that echoes in your head.”
Composers are often asked by the Director of Music to write new carols for Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on radio, although not so much for the televised service.
Since the 1960s, Carols from King’s for TV has been recorded in early December. Believe it or not, the Easter TV programme is now also recorded the same week. More than 40 technicians and eight cameras capture the choral magic. The Christmas Eve radio programme is live.
In the early 17th century, Edward Gibbons was organist and conductor of the King’s College Choir and his brother Orlando was a chorister. This brotherly combination was not repeated until the second decade of the 21st century when former chorister Tom Etheridge became an organ scholar and his younger brother took up chorister duties.
Did you know…Sheffield is still a stronghold of the festive tradition of singing Christmas carols en mass in local pubs – something that grew in Victorian times when the Church of England wanted less raucous carolling events? There can be many melodies for just one set of lyrics. Tunes vary from village to village. Among the best-known carolling pubs are the Royal at Dungworth and Blue Ball at Worrall.