The Christmas Eve carol service of Cambridge University, is one of the most famous carol services in the world and anyone with the patience to stand in the queue can go for free.
But before you head for King's College Chapel in Cambridge, England, make sure you know which service you're planning to attend. There are two popular broadcast carol services from King's. Only one really takes place on Christmas Eve and only one is open to the public.
Carols From King's vs. A Festival of Nine Lessions
The familiar televised carol service with its robed choristers in the candlelight, shown on Christmas Eve by BBC2 and around the world on BBC television outlets, is actually recorded early in December with an invited audience made up of members of the college. They've been doing it that way for over 60 years.
This is a completely different service from The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, broadcast live on BBC Radio 4 at 3 p.m. GMT (10 a.m. EST and 7 a.m. PST) on Christmas Eve, at 2 p.m. on BBC Radio 3 on Christmas Day, and around the world to millions of listeners throughout the holiday season on the BBC World Service. This is the one that's possible to attend–with a little patience and a warm coat.
The service, adapted from one created in 1880, was first held at King's on Christmas Eve in 1918, a little over a month after the end of World War I. It was first broadcast by the BBC in 1928. Today, at least 450 radio stations, including the American Public Media network, carry the broadcast. Since it has been around for nearly 90 years and, since thousands of churches have adopted its format, there's a good chance you grew up listening to it as a background to your own holiday celebrations without even knowing it.
How to Attend
The King's College Chapel Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is free to anyone who wishes to attend, but it is extremely popular so you need to be patient and willing to line up very early for a chance of a seat.
On Christmas Eve, the gates open between 6:30 and 7 a.m. and the first members of the public are admitted to the grounds of King's College. However, by that time the queue has reached the maximum number who will be admitted, so many people arrive much earlier, typically between 4 and 5 a.m. Some people may even arrive the night before to ensure they get the best seats. Make sure you bring a photo ID with you, because even though the tickets are free, specific seats may be issued to specific people.
Admittance is only through the main gate on King's Parade. All other gates into the College are locked. The college porters count the number of people joining the line. Once there are as many lined up as there are seats available in the chapel, the porters tell new arrivals that they're unlikely to be seated.
If you don't arrive in time to get a ticket, there may still be hope! Stick around and you can try your luck again at 1:30 when 500 standing room tickets will be issued. You may be waiting in line for a long time, so dress warmly and consider bringing something portable, like a folding chair, to sit on because the chapel doors won't open until 1:30 p.m. and the service doesn't start until 3 p.m. You won't be able to bring your chairs and bags with you into the chapel, but there will be a designated area where you can leave your belongings with a porter.
Special Admission for the Disabled
A limited number of advance tickets are available for people unable to stand in the queue because of disability or illness. Demand for these tickets is high so if you'll need one you must apply by mail by writing a letter to the Dean. In 2019, the mail application period ended September 30 as in the previous year. So if you haven't applied for disabled tickets by then, you are out of luck. Next year, make sure to get your postal application in as soon as the application period opens, May 18, for a better chance.
Send applications to The PA to the Dean, King's College, King's Parade, Cambridge, CB2 1ST United Kingdom, enclosing a stamped, self-addressed envelope.
Getting to King's College Chapel, Cambridge
King's College Chapel is within the ground of King's College on King's Parade in the center of the town. Public transportation on Christmas Eve ends earlier than normal and is usually very busy but if you plan ahead you should be able to reach King's College Chapel relatively easily.
- By train: Regular direct trains leave London King's Cross Station for Cambridge from very early in the morning. The trip takes about an hour and 20 minutes. The train station is about 1.3 miles from the city center. If no taxis are available, take buses 1 or 7 to Cambridge Emmanuel Street. Both services run on Christmas Eve.
- By bus: Services between Victoria Coach Station in London and Cambridge city center take anywhere from about an hour and 45 minutes to three hours on Christmas Eve.
- By car: Cambridge is a small city that is largely pedestrianized in its center. It will be congested with last minute shoppers on Christmas Eve. If you plan to drive from London, allow plenty of time. It may only be 63 miles away but it is not the easiest 63 miles on any day, let alone Christmas Eve. Your best bet is to choose the town's Park and Ride parking lots, where you can park on the outskirts of town and take a reasonably priced local bus (usually for one park-and-ride fare) to the town center.