A seat at The King's College Cambridge Christmas choir is much coveted, as the long queues prove
London, December 23, 2011
Just after 3 pm on Christmas Eve, BBC World Service will pick up the 'Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols' from King's College, Cambridge, and broadcast it to millions of listeners around the world. Britain is today pretty much a secular country but its Christian heritage is reflected on special occasions such as this carol service when people start queuing at dawn and sometimes from the night before in order to try and get one of the prized 650 seats inside the chapel. Most of them are reserved anyway for the relatives and close friends of the choristers and members of the college, making the demand for places even keener.
Practice makes perfect: The choir practicing at Kings. Don't miss the
For many people in Britain -- and probably around the world -- Christmas does not really begin until the choir starts with the same carol that it has done from the very beginning:
Once in royal David's city,
Stood a lowly cattle shed
Where a Mother laid her baby
In a manger for his bed;
Mary was that Mother mild,
Jesus Christ her little child.
Then the chorus comes in:
He came down to earth from heaven
Who is God and Lord of all,
And his shelter was a stable,
And his cradle was a stall;
With the poor and mean and lowly
Lived on earth our Saviour holy.
Song sung true: Choir boys at Kings
The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King's College Chapel, perhaps the most beautiful building in England, is a tradition that goes back to 1918. It was first broadcast in 1928 and the practice has continued since then. In order to lessen disappointment, the Dean of King's, who is in overall charge of the chapel, puts out a briefing note to members of the public. The advice offered is, "If you would like to attend the service, please join the queue at the Chapel. Normally anyone joining the queue before 9am will get in, but we cannot guarantee this. The queue is admitted at 1.30pm and the service begins at 3pm. The service ends at around 4.30pm."
People can't sneak from the backs that overlook the River Cam -- scenes that will be familiar to generations of Cambridge students in Mumbai. "The only entrance to the College will be via the main gate on King's Parade," says the advisory. "All other gates will be locked."
Traipsing in for tradition: Choir going into King's for practice
The choir service is clearly the hottest ticket in town. "Members of the public in the queue will be admitted to the college grounds via the Front Gate from 7.30am," the advisory adds. "Porters will monitor the number of people joining the queue and, once there are as many people in the queue as there are seats available, members of the public will be advised that it is unlikely that they will be able to attend the service." The service at King's includes carols and readings from the Bible. There is always a new, specially commissioned carol. This year's is a setting of Christina Rossetti's Christmas Eve by Tansy Davies.
The first service in 1918, was held when the Great War, with heavy loss of life, had ended. It was planned by Eric Milner-White, who at the age of 34 had just been appointed Dean of King's, after his experience as an army chaplain. This had convinced him that the Church of England needed more imaginative worship. A revision of the Order of Service was made in 1919, involving rearrangement of the lessons, and from that date the service has always begun with the hymn Once in Royal David's City. The service was first broadcast in 1928 and, with the exception of 1930, has been broadcast annually, even during the Second World War, when the ancient glass (and also all heat) had been removed from the Chapel. Sometime in the early 1930s the BBC began broadcasting the service on the World Service.
When Stephen Cleobury came to King's as Dean in 1982 he was keen to demonstrate a commitment to contemporary music for the College's liturgies. He decided that one way of doing this would be to commission a new carol each year for inclusion in the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols; thus a new tradition was born.
The question that arises is why is there such a passion to get in when Britain's leading intellectuals outdo each other to declare that in their opinion there is no God.
The answer might be that although most people no longer attend church services on a regular basis, say on Sunday, Britain's underlying Christian culture remains deeply ingrained in the character of the British people.