Every year on Christmas Eve at 3.00 pm, the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is broadcast from King's College Cambridge. Christmas begins for my family when the choirboy's solo of Once in Royal David's City is heard. It is a feature of this famous solo that nobody knows which of the children will sing it until it actually takes place, so that the boys do not have to worry about it in the days beforehand.
This church service from King's College in Cambridge University is actually an important event in the Classical music calendar. Each year a contemporary composer is commissioned to write a new piece for the choir to sing and many of these pieces then become part of the choral repertoire for Christmas. Recent composers have included Thomas Ades and John Tavener, both of whom are important names in the field of modern contemporary composition. The choir consists entirely of male voices, with boys singing the alto and treble parts, and men singing the tenor and bass. If you watch the service on television, you will see that they wear the traditional surplices and gowns for the occasion.
The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols was originally based on a service which took place in 1890 in Truro Cathedral, which itself was based on much older orders of service. The first service as we know it took place in 1918, just after the First World War, and the BBC began to broadcast it in 1928. It has been broadcast every year since apart from 1930.
This very special church service consists of nine lessons from the Bible, beginning with the story of Adam and Eve being thrown out of the Garden of Eden. The final two lessons consist of readings relating to the three wise men, and finally the opening of the Gospel of John. The carols and anthems are arranged round this arrangement of texts, which are usually taken from the King James Bible.
The choir plays a major role in this church service. Unlike most services, where one or at most two anthems will be sung and the choir joins the congregation for the hymns, there is always a wide selection of choral pieces for the choir to sing while the congregation listens. In addition, the soaring descants of the hymns sung by the boy sopranos in the choir are thrillingly beautiful, weaving their harmonies above the voices of the congregation and choir. This is an event which anyone who enjoys Classical music should listen to on Christmas day even if you are not religiously inclined, as the music is well worth listening to.
For more information about the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, you may like to consult the King's College Events Page.
CD recordings are available of some recent services, and I can recommend to you the A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.