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Higher Education News from the Collegiate Way

These news items about residential colleges, collegiate houses, and the renewal of university life are posted for readers of the Collegiate Way website. For more about residential colleges and collegiate universities please visit the main Collegiate Way page.

Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge

— One of the great residential college traditions of the world is the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols held every year on Christmas Eve in the chapel of King’s College at Cambridge University. This holiday service has been broadcast worldwide by BBC radio for 75 years, and it is now heard annually by millions of people. A December notice about the King’s festival has become a tradition here on the Collegiate Way website (a minor tradition within the great tradition of the festival itself), and I continue that tradition with this message.

The live broadcast will take place at 15:00 GMT on Christmas Eve, December 24th, by way of BBC radio and affiliated networks. In the United States the broadcast is carried by many public radio stations (NPR/PBS), and that is how I will be listening. Check your local station schedules, the BBC website, or the King’s College Chapel website for details. I would like to invite all readers of the Collegiate Way website to tune in with me, wherever you may be, and we can all listen together as a virtual college of our own.

The annual broadcast of the Festival of Lessons and Carols from King’s College was not even interrupted, the King’s website tells us,

during the Second World War, when the ancient glass (and also all heat) had been removed from the Chapel and the name of King’s could not be broadcast for security reasons…. From time to time the College receives copies of services held, for example, in the West Indies or the Far East and these show how widely the tradition has spread. The broadcasts, too, have become part of Christmas for many far from Cambridge. One correspondent writes that he heard the service in a tent on the foothills of Everest; another, in the desert. Many listen at home, busy about their own preparations for Christmas. Visitors from all over the world are heard to identify the Chapel as ‘the place where the Carols are sung’.

So please join me in tracking down a local station to listen to on Christmas Eve, and we can all spend some time as virtual members of that ancient collegiate society along the Cam.

What makes for successful traditions like this? In keeping with the purpose of the Collegiate Way website to promote the residential college idea (not to mention my own INTJ-ness), I must be analytical for one more moment before I close the year.

While few of us will have the resources of King’s College available to us in our own universities (their Chapel did take more than 100 years to build after all), it is important to notice several things about the general structure of the Festival of Lessons and Carols that can be replicated anywhere. The scriptural lessons in the service are read by a selection of people that are purposely chosen to bind the college and the local community together: a member of the choir, an undergraduate, a fellow of the college, a member of the college staff, the dean, the provost, a representative of the city of Cambridge, a representative of King’s sister society at Eton, and several others. This conscious structure not only ties the college community itself together, but links the college with its neighbors as well. And while the service’s overall format has remained the same for seventy-five years, variations are always introduced within this established framework, and often original hymns or anthems are commissioned specifically for the service. (That is a role for the musicians and musical alumni of any college.) An elegantly printed bulletin—available also as a .pdf file on the King’s website—is a lasting document that participants can keep with them as a reminder of the event.

The King’s Festival of Lessons and Carols is a Christian religious service, of course, and the original residential colleges were all Christian religious foundations. But the general collegiate principles that are manifest here—in binding the members of the society to one another, to their neighbors, and to those who came before them and will come after them—apply with great generality. They apply not only to colleges founded within other religious traditions (Shalom College at the University of New South Wales and Mandelbaum House at the University of Sydney are Jewish foundations, and the colleges of the Universiti Putra Malaysia follow Islamic traditions), but also to fully secular residential colleges, such as those within public universities in the United States.

The stained glass windows are wonderful, and the magnificent Gothic architecture is hard to beat. But a college is built of men and women, and the glory of any college resides not in its material fabric, but in the way it brings its members together and illuminates their lives.

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2016