nave at Norwich Cathedral

A Christmas Service

What’s going on? The general numbers for church attendance seem to be sinking, but this October the Church of England reported that last year’s attendance at Christmas services in cathedrals reached 136,000 people – the highest figure since records began.

Blue Badge Guide, Sophie Cambell explores the best Christmas services around the UK.

“The mix of age, architecture, superlative English music and, let’s be honest, improved showmanship seems to melt the heart of even the most cynical of citizens. The chance to sit in a beautiful building and be catapulted into the seasonal mood is clearly irresistible.

But we mustn’t ignore our churches and chapels – especially as many of us can’t get to cathedrals. This year marks a century since King’s College Cambridge first staged its elevated version of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols invented at Truro Cathedral in 1880 by the then Bishop E W Benson. It was conceived to draw congregations into the Christmas story more imaginatively. The King’s College version, always broadcast at 3pm on Christmas Eve, is seen by tens of millions of people worldwide each year.


kings college cambridge

King’s College, Cambridge

Now King’s is a college chapel, but it’s probably the apex in terms of Christmas performances. But that doesn’t stop every other cathedral and church in England and Wales staging its own events, from knitted cribs to casts of live animals and from celebrity seasonal readings to the traditional cycle of services of the Christmas liturgy.

Here’s a selection from around the country, below:

King’s College Cambridge
Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to get to the Nine Lessons and Carols: you just have to get out of bed in the early hours of Christmas Eve and queue, clutching your photo ID, in the hope of getting one of 500 individual tickets, distributed at 7am.

Truro Cathedral, Cornwall
Truro holds two Festivals of Nine Lessons on Carols each on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day – but it also has a carol service for pets on December 29 and this year they’re holding a service of Carols from the Cornish Diaspora on December 20.

Truro Cathedral

Truro Cathedral

St Bartholomew the Great, London
The remaining part of London’s oldest priory church stages some fascinating carol services, from Nine Lessons and Carols focused on the City Livery Companies, to services dedicated to carols from America and Germany.

St Bartholomew the Great Church, the second oldest church in London.

St Bartholomew the Great Church, the second oldest church in London.

Norwich Cathedral, Norfolk

Norwich’s beautiful cathedral holds a Crib Service at midday on Christmas Day, when children come dressed as a character from the Nativity Story.

Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral

The Boy Choristers of Britain’s largest Catholic cathedral sing Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, while the Girl Choristers take the honours for the First Vespers of Christmas and Blessing of the Crib on Christmas Eve at 3pm.

Southwell Minster, Nottinghamshire
This handsome Norman church has a busy schedule of services throughout December, including its own Christmas Celebration: Southwell Music Festival on the 21 st , just before the run-up to Christmas proper.

Durham Cathedral, Co Durham
Durham follows its packed Christmas schedule with the touring version of The Snowman on December 28 and Bach’s Christmas Oratorio on January 5, the eve of Epiphany.

Durham Cathedral

St Davids Cathedral, Pembrokeshire
This lovely cathedral, nestled in a hollow in the landscape, has a Scratch Nativity (come dressed as an angel, wise man, shepherd or sheep) on the 23rd, followed by carols around the crib on Christmas Eve and a Bilingual Choral Eucharist on Christmas Day.

Do check before you set off for a carol service that it is not ticketed or limited in terms of numbers.”

You can read more about our great church buildings.

Book this guide button