The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols tells the story of the fall of humanity, the promise of the Messiah and the birth of Jesus. It is told through nine short Bible readings interspersed with the singing of Christmas hymns and carols. The format was based on an order of service drawn up in 1880 which has since been adapted by churches all over the world. The best-known version is broadcast annually on Christmas Eve by the BBC from King’s College, Cambridge.

Each December, VOX Cape Town presents its own local adaptation of the famous Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. The service takes place at St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Somerset Road, Cape Town, continuing the tradition led for many years by the St George’s Singers, and at St Andrew’s Church in Kildare Road, Newlands. In addition, VOX Cape Town also broadcasts a recording of this service on Fine Music Radio on Christmas Eve, bringing this unique musical celebration to a much wider audience.

Carols for 2023
  • Come, Thou Redeemer Of The Earth – German Traditional, arr. David Willcocks
  • Kontakion and Ikhos – Ukrainian Orthodox
  • Ave Generosa – Ola Gjeilo (b. 1978, Norway)
  • Lo! How A Rose E’er Blooming – German Traditional, arr. M. Praetorius
  • Bogoroditse Dîevo (“Rejoice, O Virgin”) – Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943)
  • Sant Josep I La Mare De Déu (“Mary, Mother Of God’s Dear Child”) – Catalan Traditional, arr. Pere Jorda
  • Sussex Carol ­– English Traditional, arr. David Willcocks
  • Follow That Star – Peter Gritton (b. 1963, England)

This is VOX’s eighth presentation of the Festival of Nine Lessons of Carols. It begins with the first of two traditional German tunes (Come, Thou Redeemer Of The Earth), setting an atmosphere of anticipation for the mystery that is to be presented before us. The second tune, better known in its original language (‘Es ist ein Ros entsprungen’), is a much-loved Advent hymn from the late 16th century. The origin of the image of the rose has been the subject of much speculation; one apocryphal legend, for instance, tells of a monk who, on Christmas Eve, found a blooming rose while walking in the woods. He placed the rose in a vase on an altar to the Virgin Mary.

Also paying homage to the story of Mary is a musical setting of Ave Generosa, words attributed to Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179), a German abbess and polymath from the High Middle Ages. The music was composed by Norwegian Ola Gjeilo as recently as 2017 and features a hauntingly joyful tonality and a beautiful modal middle section.

Two musical items are a nod to Eternal Echoes, one of the signature immersive performances presented by VOX earlier this year. The Kontakion and Ikhos, based on a Ukrainian Orthodox rite, includes a reference to the First Lesson (‘Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return’), providing a solemn memento mori and encouraging us to spare a thought for those caught up in the continuing conflicts in the world today. The famous setting of Bogoroditse Dîevo, a hymn of earnest adoration from the Vespers section of the All-Night Vigil by Rachmaninoff, begins with careful restraint and eventually gives way to an unleashing of emotion and energy with the words: “Blessed is the fruit of thy womb, for thou hast brought forth the Saviour who redeemed our souls.”

The heart of the service, the birth of Jesus in the manger, is celebrated with a lilting tune from Catalonia (Sant Josep I La Mare De Déu). As the news of Jesus’s birth starts to spread, the music picks up in tempo and mood. Both the words and the tune of the Sussex Carol were discovered and written down by Cecil Sharp and Ralph Vaughan Williams who heard it being sung in a hamlet in Sussex (hence its name). Finally, in yet another diverse musical offering, the story of the journey of the Three Kings as they Follow That Star is related through an upbeat barbershop setting that will be sure to get your toes tapping!

To read more, download the service leaflet for the 2023 Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.

Carols for 2022
  • Adam lay ybounden – Boris Ord (1896–1961, Britain)
  • I wonder as I wander – Traditional Appalachian arranged by John Rutter
  • In dulci jubilo (“In sweet rejoicing”) – Traditional German harmonised by JS Bach
  • Gabriel’s Message – Traditional Basque arranged by Edgar Petman
  • O magnum mysterium (“O great mystery”) – Tomás Luis de Victoria (c. 1548-1611, Spain)
  • Ukuthula (“Peace”) – Traditional Zulu
  • Carol of the Bells – Traditional Ukrainian/Leontovich arranged by PJ Wilhousky
  • Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day – John Gardner (1917–2011, England)

For us and for many of our supporters, the famous Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is an important milestone as we race towards the end of the year. This year, folk carols collected from Spain (Gabriel’s Message), Ukraine (The Carol of the Bells) and the United States (I Wonder as I Wander) will be complemented by sublime polyphonic music from the Renaissance (O Magnum Mysterium by Victoria) and the exuberant rhythms of Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day (John Gardner). The moments of quiet reflection that mark the central point of the service, in which the birth of Jesus is described, will be accompanied by the local lullaby Ukuthula and a gentle rendition of Stille Nag, Heilige Nag!

Carols for 2021
Carols for 2019
  • “Benedicamus Domino” – Peter Warlock (1894-1930, England)
  • “Maria durch ein’ Dornwald ging” – Traditional German (1850) arranged by Stefan Claas
  • “By-By, Lullaby” – Stephen Carletti (b. 1965, South Africa), first performance
  • “There is no rose” – John Joubert (1927-2019, South Africa then England)
  • “Videte miraculum” – Thomas Tallis (c. 1505-1585, England)
  • “Thula! Nunu, zola ulale” (“Hush! My dear, lie still and slumber”) – Malcolm Archer (b. 1952, England), original words by Isaac Watts translated by Folio Translation Consultants
  • “What Sweeter Music” – John Rutter (b. 1945, England)
  • “Somerkersfees” – Koos du Plessis arranged by Hans Huyssen (b. 1964, South Africa)

2019 marks the fifth Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols presented by VOX Cape Town.

2019 also celebrates the 80th birthday of our patron, Dr Barry Smith, and so the order of service includes music by two composers with whom his career has been closely associated. The first of these composers is Peter Warlock and the opening lines of his joyous carol Benedicamus Domino – “For the advent of a child, / Hurrah! The season is upon us” – aptly set the tone for the story to follow. Later, we sing a sublime, unaccompanied setting of the 15th-century text, There is no rose, by South African-born composer John Joubert who passed away earlier this year.

After the First Lesson, we revisit a German carol from last year that was popular amongst singers and listeners alike (Maria durch ein’ Dornwald ging). The Second Lesson is followed by a meditative setting of the 16th-century text, By-By, Lullaby, composed earlier this year by Stephen Carletti, making this the first performance of the work. We remain in the Renaissance for polyphonic music by Thomas Tallis, who depicts in his setting of Videte miraculum – “Behold the miracle [of the mother of the Lord]” – the awe with which this holy gift is received.

You may notice a few small differences in some of this year’s congregational carols. While the melodies remain exactly the same, we hope that the new harmonies and descants in Once in Royal David’s City and O Little Town of Bethlehem will bring a freshness to these much-loved hymns. These arrangements were made by Philip Ledger, who directed the choir at King’s College, Cambridge, for nearly a decade. The inclusion of What Sweeter Music, a ravishing carol by John Rutter, pays tribute to Sir Stephen Cleobury (for whom the carol was written in 1988) who, in September, retired after leading the choir at King’s for 37 years. Cleobury passed away in November.

Finally, to acknowledge our local setting at the southern tip of Africa, we present two more carols from closer to home. The first is a specially-commissioned isiXhosa translation of the rocking Cradle Hymn by Malcolm Archer – Thula! Nunu, zola ulale (“Hush! My dear, lie still and slumber”). The second is an upbeat arrangement by Hans Huyssen of the Afrikaans carol written to celebrate “a bright summer’s Christmas”, Somerkersfees.

Do remember that our pre-recorded service of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, featuring most of this music, broadcasts on Fine Music Radio at 6 pm on Christmas Eve. If you would like to take a souvenir home with you, then a professional recording of the service from 2017 is available from us afterwards at a cost of R100. We wish you a safe, happy and music-filled festive season.

Carols for 2018
  • “Adam lay ybounden” – Howard Skempton (b. 1947, England)
  • “Maria durch ein Dornwald ging” (“Mary walks amid the thorn”) – Traditional German (1850) arranged by Stefan Claas
  • “In dulci jubilo” (“In sweet rejoicing”) – Traditional German arranged by R. L. Pearsall and adapted by Reginald Jacques
  • “There Is No Rose” (2015) – Philip Stopford (b. 1977, England)
  • “Ukuthula” (“Peace”) – Traditional Zulu
  • “Follow That Star” – Peter Gritton (b. 1963, England)
  • “Christmas in Africa” – Music by Maike Watson (South Africa, b. 1989), words by Margaret Kollmer (South Africa, b. 1936)

This year’s Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols sees the return of some familiar tunes as well as a host of new carols and hymns. The famous German carol, “In dulci jubilo” (“In sweet rejoicing”), was last sung by VOX in 2015 and is presented again this year alongside two numbers from 2017 – the barbershop-style depiction of the Wise Men who “Follow That Star” to Bethlehem and VOX’s specially-commissioned South African carol, “Christmas in Africa”.

2018 marks 100 years since the famous Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols was first sung at King’s College, Cambridge. To recognise this, two contemporary English composers are featured in this year’s line-up: Howard Skempton (“Adam lay ybounden”) and Philip Stopford (“There Is No Rose”), both of whom have chosen beautiful poems from the 15th century as their texts.

There are also some changes to this year’s congregational hymns. We have decided to give two perennial favourites, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “While shepherds watched their flocks by night”, a rest this year and have introduced two other popular tunes – “Unto Us Is Born a Son”, which originates from medieval Germany and France, and “The First Nowell”. 2018 is also the 200th anniversary of the carol “Silent Night”. The music was written by Franz Xavier Gruber in 1818, to words by Joseph Mohr, in the small town of Oberndorf bei Salzburg in Austria.

To acknowledge our local setting, a traditional Zulu lullaby, “Ukuthula” (“Peace”), will be sung following the Sixth Lesson (The Birth of Jesus). Subsequent verses of this serene prayer describe victory (“Ukunqoba”) and redemption (“Usindiso”). Once again, our Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols ends with “Christmas in Africa” to bring to a close this year’s celebration “under a Southern sky”.

If you enjoy the music and would like to take a souvenir home with you, a professional recording of last year’s Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, which will broadcast again this year on Fine Music Radio at 6 pm on Christmas Eve, will be available from us afterwards.

Carols for 2017
  • “Veni, Creator Spiritus” (“Come, Holy Spirit”) – Plainchant from the ninth century
  • “Pula, Pula!” (“Rain, Rain!”) – Franco Prinsloo (South Africa, b. 1987)
  • “Ríu Ríu Chíu”– 16th-century Spanish carol
  • “Bethlehem Down” – Peter Warlock (1894-1930, England), words by Bruce Blunt
  • “Bogoróditse Djévo” (“Rejoice, O Virgin”) – Arvo Pärt (b. 1935, Estonia)
  • “Infant holy, Infant lowly” – Traditional Polish carol arranged by David Willcocks (1919-2015, England)
  • “Quem vidistis pastores dicite” (“Tell us, shepherds, whom you saw”) – Francis Poulenc (1899-1963, France)
  • “Follow That Star” – Peter Gritton (b. 1963, England)
  • “Christmas in Africa” (2017) – Music by Maike Watson (South Africa, b. 1989), words by Margaret Kollmer (South Africa, b. 1936)

VOX Cape Town’s presentation of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols for 2017 begins with plainchant from the ninth century – an invocation of the Holy Spirit entitled “Veni, Creator Spiritus” (“Come, Holy Spirit”). After the First Lesson, which describes the fall of man in the Garden of Eden, the composer of “Pula! Pula!” (“Rain! Rain!”) reminds us that: “Water is more than an essential resource for survival; it is a symbol of cleansing and purification that moves beyond the physical.”

As the coming of the Saviour is revealed in the subsequent readings, a lively Spanish “villancico” (“carol”) describes how “God protected the precious ewe-lamb [the Virgin Mary] from the wolf [the Devil]”. This is followed by a gentle hymn composed by Peter Warlock (who, incidentally, won the Daily Telegraph’s annual carol competition 90 years ago in 1927 for this work) and a sprightly setting of “Bogoróditse Djévo” by Arvo Pärt (1990) which contrasts the well-known version by Rachmaninoff presented at last year’s Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.

The popular hymn “Away in a Manger” and the traditional Polish carol “Infant holy, Infant lowly” provide a few moments of quiet reflection after the Sixth Lesson. The news of the birth of Jesus spreads rapidly, as portrayed in a sweepingly dramatic piece by Francis Poulenc from his “Quatre Motets pour le temps de Noël” (“Four Christmas Motets”) – “Tell us, shepherds, whom you saw” – and the close-harmony depiction of the Wise Men who “Follow that Star” to Bethlehem.

This year’s Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols concludes with the première of a new South African carol especially commissioned by VOX Cape Town to expand the local choral repertoire. Entitled “Christmas in Africa”, the text is written by South African poet Margaret Kollmer and has been set to music by Cape Town-based composer Maike Watson. Watson’s score evokes “twinkling stars, story-time and prayers in the veld”, thereby setting the scene for a unique and locally-relevant celebration of Christmas “under a Southern sky” .

Carols for 2016
  • “Come, thou Redeemer of the earth” – Traditional, arr. David Willcocks
  • “Senzenina?” (“What have we done?”) – South African freedom song, arr. Pete Seeger
  • “I wonder as I wander” – Appalachian carol, arr. John Rutter
  • “Bogoróditse Djévo” (“Rejoice, O Virgin”) – Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-­1943, Russia)
  • “O magnum mysterium” (“O great mystery”) – Tomás Luis de Victoria (c. 1548-1611, Spain)
  • “Torches” – John Joubert (b. 1927, South Africa) with words translated by J. B. Trend
  • “Come, Colours Rise” – Grant McLachlan (b. 1956, South Africa) with words by Frank Barry
Carols for 2015
  • “Adam lay ybounden” – John Ireland (1879-1962, England)
  • “The Lamb” – Sir John Tavener (1944-2013, England)
  • “In dulci jubilo” (“In sweet rejoicing”) – Traditional, arr. JS Bach (1685-1750, Germany)
  • “Gabriel’s Message” – Basque carol, arr. Edgar Pettman
  • “O magnum mysterium” (“O great mystery”) – Tomás Luis de Victoria (c. 1548-1611, Spain)
  • “Lux Aurumque” (“Light and Gold”) – Eric Whitacre (b. 1970, United States)
  • “Gaudete” (“Rejoice”) – 16th-century Latin carol, arr. Michael McGlynn

Annual Christmas Eve broadcasts on Fine Music Radio

Since 2016, a recording of VOX Cape Town’s local adaptation of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols has broadcast on Fine Music Radio on Christmas Eve, bringing this unique musical celebration to a much wider audience.


  • Christmas Eve 2023/2022: The broadcast ended with a special musical offering courtesy of the Yellowwood Duo.
  • Christmas Eve 2021: The broadcast incorporated lively recordings from an in-person performance earlier that month with Here be Dragons, entitled Follow That Star: A Traveller’s Companion to Christmas.
  • Christmas Eve 2020: To end with a flourish, while acknowledging the peculiar context of 2020, the broadcast concluded with a sparkling “virtual performance” of three lively carols especially arranged by Jan-Hendrik Harley, featuring the combined forces of VOX Cape Town, early folk ensemble Here be Dragons and soprano Lente Louw.
  • Christmas Eve 2019: A host of new and familiar music from South Africa and abroad was presented, including carols by John Joubert, John Rutter and Stefan Claas, and first recordings of a brand-new carol by Stephen Carletti, an isiXhosa translation of the gentle Cradle Hymn and a choral arrangement by Hans Huyssen of Somerkersfees.
  • Christmas Eve 2018/2017: Erik Dippenaar joined VOX Cape Town as guest organist for these broadcast. The broadcasts also featured the first recordings of two new South African works, Christmas in Africa (a setting by Maike Watson of a poem by Margaret Kollmer) and Pula, Pula! (Franco Prinsloo).
  • Christmas Eve 2016: VOX Cape Town’s local adaptation of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols was broadcast for the first time on Christmas Eve on Fine Music Radio, replacing the usual recording from King’s College, Cambridge. Recorded by Nolan Chiat (Create Recordings) in St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, this was a wonderful opportunity to promote local music and musicians. Traditional choral works by Rachmaninoff and Vittoria were juxtaposed alongside local choral music from closer to home including Senzenina? (“What have we done?”), Torches! and Come, Colours Rise.

Interview on Fine Music Radio about the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols (December 2021)

by Rodney Trudgeon and John Woodland

Interview on Fine Music Radio about the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols (December 2016)

by Rodney Trudgeon and John Woodland

What you had to say about our broadcasts…

“Thank you, one and all, for the wonderful service of Nine Lessons and Carols and the music which followed. You brought great joy to us here in the Karoo. May this be a Blessed Christmas season for you.” (2023)

“Wonderful surprise to experience your Christmas Eve service online, experienced in the comfort of our home. Well planned and delivered in an orderly manner; well thought-through. Blessed our souls tremendously. Please upload to listen and share with other loved ones across the world.” (2022)

“Loved the selection of music during the Festival and afterwards. Thanks so much indeed. Inspiring, uplifting, beautiful – a privilege.” (2022)

“Many thanks for the lovely two hours on FMR over Christmas, with the Nine Lessons and Carols, and the extras. Really enjoyable and relaxing! Wishing all involved only the best for 2023.” (2022)

“I can’t avoid sounding ‘over the top’ but it was one of the most moving, absorbing and beautiful programmes I have heard for a long time. I thought the way it had been ‘updated’ was inspired and what’s more, the speakers delivered impeccably: engaged with their subject, clear and unhurried. Altogether a wonderful two hours. Thank you very much and congratulations to all those involved.” (2022)

“Thanks everyone, you made our Christmas Eve so special, and we hummed along where we could. The Carol of the Bells we have tried in our time (and failed!) – it was sung brilliantly! Have a blessed and peaceful Christmas, and a music-laden New Year!” (2021)

“Thank you for a lovely entrez to Christmas. We really enjoyed sharing and listening to the lessons and “songs”. A beautiful beginning to the Christmas season. Most grateful.” (2021)

“The service was absolutely beautiful and uplifting to the soul.” (2021)

“Oh my gosh, that Christmas festival of carols, readings and music was absolutely sublime… I have never enjoyed one as much. Light, balanced and really meaningful. Excellent readings! Sincere thanks to absolutely everybody who was involved.” (2021)

“With my love, thanks and appreciation to the exceptionally gifted John Woodland and everyone involved in this marvellous service. I enjoyed every familiar word spoken and note sung and played! Wishing everyone a blessed Christmas and/or a very merry, very happy and joyous festive season!” (2021)

“The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols was a triumph, especially after a year such as 2020. The programme was beautifully constructed and the messages of reassurance, comfort and hope, along with the high standard of music and choral performances proves that no matter the crisis, human spirit prevails.” (2020)

“Thank you for the brilliant performance of a theme which you have localised beautifully and, in my opinion, those who recognise an age-old tradition will and can be included and benefit from the centuries of experience. I did! My experience really comes from King’s College Chapel. I have a 1960s recording LP which has become dim over time, and also a newer CD production two or three producers on. Your production was special for the timing and date of broadcast and I can only commend you who organise and produce this type of classical event. Hoorah!” (2020)

“Thanks so much to you all and also to St Andrews and Here be Dragons and the soprano for a delightful programme of readings and carols this evening – a wonderful prelude to tomorrow’s Christmas celebrations! Under the most trying circumstances yet, this Year of Covid, a year as no other before in our lifetime, you pulled off a coup – one felt that one was in the same space as the celebrant, the orchestra and the choristers, so great was the professionalism of your performance and the renditions. We are greatly indebted to you for the determination, ingenuity and talent behind this evening’s Festival.” (2020)

“THANK YOU for the wonderful Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols this evening. Truly sublime singing and a joyful and uplifting concert after this terrible year. Thank you so much. I hope you all stay well and safe and have a happy festive season and 2021.” (2020)

“Thank you all for the wonderful broadcast carol service this afternoon. I loved every moment of it and thought the singing and choice of music was just perfect.” (2020)

We’d love to hear what you thought about our broadcasts!