Britain's best Christmas carol services

Anna Walker

Few activities feel more festive than a good old-fashioned singalong. Here are our favourite carol services…

Nine Lessons and Carols, Cambridge, December 24

Broadcast on BBC Radio 4 every Christmas Eve, this concert at King’s College Cambridge is the real deal.

A tradition proudly upheld since 1918—and broadcast since 1928—it’s the service that instantly springs to mind when you picture quintessential English carolling. 

The service even continued during the Second World War, with carollers singing their hearts out despite a lack of heating and the removal of all ancient glass from the chapel.

Dubbed “A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols”, the evening always begins with “Once in Royal David’s City” and features a brand new carol alongside readings from the Bible.

An immensely popular service, queuing for the 3pm concert usually begins in the early hours of the morning, but Cambridge singers are on hand to entertain the crowds.

Visit kings.cam.ac/events for more information

 

Carols with the King, Norwich, December 3

Make this year a Blue Christmas and celebrate with rock ‘n’ roll royalty at this unique carol concert at the Norwich Forum.

Now in its ninth year, “Carols with the King” celebrates Elvis Presley’s immeasurable contribution to the Christmas carol canon with a good old-fashioned singalong.

Expect a mix of Elvis classics, Christmas songs and a few festive surprises along the way. Proceeds from the event go towards local charities, with a raffle and prizes
for those feeling especially merry.  

Says marketing manager Carole Slaughter, “Our great line-up includes a new look for the band with Elvis and the Blue Sueders featuring The Broads; the fabulous singer Dale Bullimore; and hosting by Norfolk’s favourite, Olly Day. It’s a fantastic evening that we hope all will enjoy.”

Visit visitnorwich.co.uk for more information

 

Carol Train Service, Bradford, December 16

All aboard the festive express as steam-train loving carollers gather at the Keighly and Worth Valley Railway to commemorate the Christmas season with a very special journey.

Passengers congregate at Oxenhope Station for carols before boarding the steam train—along with the Hall Royd Brass Band—ready to stop at all the major stations to sing, listen to parts of the Christmas story and join together in prayers. 

Real ale is served aboard the train and a complimentary pie supper is on offer when passengers alight at Keighley, where local Yorkshire choirs are on hand to serenade them. 

The event is so popular it was even featured on a festive episode of Songs of Praise.

Visit kwvr.co.uk/events for more information

 

Hark! The Herald, Ely, December 22

If you like your carol concerts to be traditional, look no further than the magical annual “Hark! The Herald” concert held at the awe-inspiring
Ely Cathedral. 

Celebrated just days before Christmas, this annual concert focuses on traditional carols and seasonal music, including the likes of “The Holly and the Ivy” and “Away in a Manger”, all under the watchful boughs of a magnificent 30ft-tall Christmas tree. 

Sip on mulled wine as you enjoy the soaring voices of the cathedral choir, lit by candles in a building that dates back to 1083, and keep an eye out for a magical blanket of “snow” falling from the 142ft Gothic Octagon.

Says marketing officer Maddie Cox, “This concert showcases Christmas at Ely. Last year, the sight and sound of the choristers singing the ‘Snow Waltz’, as fake snowballs were catapulted through the air between the performers and the audience, was, without doubt, one of the highlights of the concert.”

Visit elycathedral.org for more information

 

Sancta Lucia Festival of Lights, Liverpool, December 12

Performed throughout the Christmas season in Sweden, Sancta Lucia (the feast of martyr Saint Lucy) is a traditional celebration of the power of light and hope against the darkness of winter. 

This customary service at Liverpool Cathedral includes a candlelit procession to the voices of the London Nordic Choir and Evangeliska Fosterlandsstiftelsen, the charity that founded Liverpool’s Swedish Seamen’s church back in 1883. 

Says Liverpool Cathedral’s Reverend Canon Myles Davies, “We’re delighted to welcome so many as we celebrate Christmas in this glorious space. Words and music, light and movement all play their part in telling the familiar Christmas story—we look forward to a wonderful time.”

Visit liverpoolcathedral.co.uk for more information

 

Organoke, London, December 16

Far from chiming peacefully with the sounds of silver bells, the aisles of St Giles Church in Camberwell echo with somewhat less traditional tunes. 

Here, carollers belt out heartfelt renditions of Wham’s “Last Christmas” or The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York”, all to the jaunty tones of one of London’s oldest church organs. 

Don your most outlandish festive jumper, grab a beer, take your place in the pews and prepare to dance the night away.

Says co-creator Jordana Leighton, “From the first chords on the organ, people are on their feet, and by the end of the song they’re dancing in the aisles. There’s something rather magical in seeing 500 people packed into church pews singing their hearts out. It’s joyous, camp, kitsch and a lot of fun.”

Visit organoke.com for more information

 

Winterbourne Carols in the Barn, Gloucestershire, December 16–17

Singing “Away in a Manger” has never felt so apt. Gather in Winterbourne Barn for a carol service set as close to the nativity story as possible. 

With dramatic performances of the original Christmas story by members of St Michael’s Church, plus well-known carols for all to join, this service is set to be something special. 

Gill Greef, one of the play’s angels, says, “Carols in the Barn is fast becoming a Winterbourne tradition. We hope to capture a little of the excitement there must have been in heaven that first Christmas night, and hope people will flock to watch just as the shepherds did.”

Visitors can collect a warming cup of mulled wine before the show begins, but wrap up warm—you’ll be exercising your vocal chords in a real, unheated medieval barn.

Visit winterbournebarn.org.uk/events for more information

 

Do you have a favourite carol concert? Email readersletters@readersdigest.co.uk and tell us about it!