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Page last updated at 12:22 GMT, Friday, 22 December 2006

Queuing for King's


While others are frantically tearing around the shops, Neil Hallows is one of a small but loyal group who spend the final days before Christmas braving the cold and damp to queue for the King's College carol service.

For many, it's the start of Christmas. But it's also the end of a very long queue.

At a little after 1500 this Christmas Eve, the chapel at King's College, Cambridge falls silent for a few seconds, before a soloist sings the opening verse of Once in Royal David's City.

The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is heard, every year, by millions on the radio. But if you want to attend, you either need a job at King's or a good few warm layers.

The service is open to the public, and there are no tickets, except for college fellows and staff, and no admission fee. The only price you pay is to wait.

First held in 1918
Since 1919, the service has begun with Once in Royal David's City
First broadcast on radio in 1928, and TV since 1963
My queue starts 32 hours before the service. You don't have to go that early - the college says a place in the queue by 0930 on Christmas Eve should get you in - but I have a reunion to attend.

When I arrive outside the college at 0700 on 23 December, I know the few who will already be there. There will be Ian, asleep, about halfway through his annual three-day queue; Charles, who saves every cent so he can fly 4,500 miles from Dallas to London each year to attend the service.

Through the day, others will slowly arrive for the reunion. We greet each other like old friends, although it is a strange friendship where we spend just a day and night together. When the service is over, and we step out into the dark, that's it for another year. So for the time we have, we talk and talk.

We reminisce about the Christmas when the whole city was covered in a perfect, delicate frost, and then argue about which year it happened. We talk about those who only came for a year - friends who just didn't get it: an American pastor who smiled continuously for more than 24 hours as he waited; assorted minor celebrities suddenly deprived of their backstage passes.

We remember each other's bold plans from the previous year, and then wonder whether it is wise to mention them.

Unforgotten few

If any regulars don't come, we worry. I'd love to know what happened to Robin and Lilian. They used to arrive in the early hours of Christmas Eve, and I still walk around in the darkness peering at newcomers' faces, even though they haven't attended for five years. Like me, they knew little about music but they said there was something about the service, and the queue, that they never wanted to miss. "Nothing will stop us", Robin used to say.

The civilised queuing system came as a relief to an American who seriously contemplated self-catheterisation
Because we know each other, no-one can push in. We know our place, so to speak - mine is invariably fifth. This means that we can wander off to eat, so long as we are in line and ready to enter the chapel before the service.

This simple system, which operates without need for the college's involvement, came as a great relief to an American visitor who seriously contemplated self-catheterisation as a way of solving the dilemma of staying in the same line for more than 24 hours.

One subject we rarely discuss is why we are there. Everyone has their own reasons for attending - a small minority of queuers are religious, a larger number are musical, for others it's simply a place to escape to.

I only tend to ask "why" in the middle of the night. It's not the cold and rain, which are hardly a challenge for a single night, but the bouts of heartiness among queuers. Some are young and, as Evelyn Waugh put it, "unused to wine". Others think a queue for a carol service is somehow an excuse for singing carols. I need my sleep and they wassail me at their peril.

Heavenly peace

I remember one man so consumed with excitement that he sat all night on a fishing stool telling strangers about every Christmas he had ever had. Some had been tragic, some just plain dull, but this one, he said, would be different. It would be perfect.

Neil, second from right, with fellow hard-bitten fans of the festival
The following day, I saw him sitting near the choir, the perk of queueing all night. There was a look of complete happiness on his face as he heard the first carol. This is followed by a prayer, and as we were urged to think of those "upon another shore, and in a greater light", his eyes closed, and he fell asleep.

The people next to him didn't notice, and I couldn't wake him, short of shouting across the chapel. As the organ played to mark the end of the service, he woke up with a huge smile on his face. Wonderful service, he said, especially Silent Night. But it had only been sung in his dreams.

Sitting on my deckchair outside King's, I used to watch the shoppers scurry past and feel as if I had somehow opted out of the Great British Christmas with all its excesses.

In truth, I could only be there because my parents, who live locally, were among the hordes, scurrying from shop to shop in readiness for the perfect family Christmas.

Missing out

Last year, everything changed. My daughter had been born a few months before, and I wanted to take part in my own nativity scene. Having decided to spend Christmas in Dorset, it was too risky to contemplate getting there after the service. So I missed my first in 14 years.

For years before, I had suffered nightmares about missing the service. When I missed it for real, it wasn't a nightmare. I was too happy and busy for self indulgence, although its start came as a relief because I'd still be entertaining fantasies of being spirited there.

This year, I was desperate to return, even if only to say my goodbyes until my daughter is old enough to queue with me. But I have the same transport problems, and the prospect of being stuck in railway sidings over Christmas really would be a nightmare.

My wife worked out the answer. I'm going to queue. I'll arrive at the same time on 23 December, and spend the day and night with my old friends. Then just before the service, as we're all forming into an orderly line, I'll leave, and give someone else my place. It's a Christmas present I never thought I'd be able to give.

For those who don't fancy queuing, the Festival for Nine Lessons and Carols is broadcast live on BBC Radio 4, on 24 December, shortly after 1500 GMT.

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Below is a selection of your comments.

Most public radio stations here in the United States broadcast the Service of 9 Lessons and Carols live (here in Iowa, it comes on at 9:00 a.m.). It has become a regular tradition in my family to tune in and listen to this service every year. I, for one, refuse to get caught up in the over-commercialization of the Christmas season and therefore, it is not the opening of presents that I look forward to, but the Service of 9 lessons and carols at King's. I'm hoping that one of these years, my family and I will be able to fly over to England attend the service in person...and yes, speaking for myself, I would be willing to wait in line for 32 hours.
Anthony Birnbaum, Iowa City, Iowa

Daniel O'Toole, Manchester

What a wonderful story. I was left misty eyed and my heart felt truly uplifted when I had finished reading it. Thank you and Happy Christmas.
Karen Mustchin, Winchester, Hampshire

England at its best.
Bernard H. Bichakjian, Nijmegen, The Netherlands

For many more years than I can think of, the ABC has televised the service from the year before on Xmas Day. It has now ceased to do so, why? I miss it greatly.
Geoff Leonard, Hornsby, NSW, Australia

As an expat now living in Calgary Canada I tune in every Christmas Eve live at 8am. A truly beautiful reminder of the most wonderful English Christmases past.
Lesley, Calgary, Alberta Canada

May your sacrifice of giving up your very special place in this exceptional queue to another, give you both, one in person, one in memory, the peace and joy of this wonderful, unique and spiritual carol service. Christmas is for giving. Have a splendid Christmas with your family and all the best for your future.
Jo, Scarborough

I think I would rather have my leg hair removed with industrial strength packing tape rather than queue for and then sit through such a boring event.
Robin Redbreast, Liverpool

Your article started my day off perfectly. Such kindness is a joy to share. God Bless Robin who would rather shave his legs.
Ann Hobbs, Oklahoma City USA

I used to listen on the radio as a child while growing up in Newmarket. Thank you for reminding me of something so beautiful I am all most ashamed to admit I forgot!!
SF, Wayne, NJ

I sent this to my younger daughter as part of my annual attempt to sell the program carried every year here by a local PBS station. I wanted to share her reply: "It's so refreshing to hear of people queuing for something like this, vs. Nintendo game systems and such!"
Virginia H. Howard, Endicott, NY, USA

The service instantly transports me back to my schooldays between 1958 and 1966 when boy treble choirs were a fixture in the local community. My last involvement in religion was in the VIth Form when I was elected President of the school's Student Christian Moment on an atheist ticket. That doesn't change my regret that the boy treble dominated choir is a vanishing sound - especially as I've promised an authentic sound of the old school hymns to complete the memorabilia on our old boys' web site.
ChrisJ, Stevenage, UK

As a former chorister, it's marvellous to see the enthusiasm continues to the same old slightly mad extent. Long may it continue!
David, London

Each to thier own,i wouldnt queue for such an event but robin from liverpools comment is just plain "bah humbug". merry christmas & peace & goodwill to all.
s corr , dunstable beds

Nice story!
Lawrence, Langley

What a wonderful story. What a wonderful tradition, the Queue, the Service at King's. I was born in Australia, and naturally love all things English.
Michael Berliner, Madison, WI, USA

Traditions fade like species in our frantic world. Some of us value tradition and others cannot bear it. Long live the King's College Choir and kudos to those who keep the memories green. It's all about mortality.
John G McDonald, Amherst, Massachusetts

I see you all every year! Such a fantastic article...
Paddy, Cambridge

What an incredible experience!
ben, vancouver

I've been listening every Christmas Eve since I was a small child. It's a beautiful service, and I only wish that I weren't an ocean away so that I could join the tradition, too.
Arwen, Bloomington, Indiana, USA

I like Christmas carols immensely. I am thrilled to sing them lustily and am scheduled to sing at a Christmas eve service. However,I am not sure whether I have listened to the 9 lessons and carols service so far. But I intend to listen to the live telecast this time. Although Neil Hallows' sacrificing of his place in the queue may not sound a 'big deal' measured by mundane standards, the true value of a gift depends on what pulls at 'our heart strings'. Viewed in that light Neil is indeed offering a wonderful Christmas present.
Solomon Gunapalan, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

It's great to see people embracing Christmas for its real meaning - Christ. If you don't like Jesus then stop celebrating Christmas.
andy, Lo ndon

As an expat living in Maryland what heavenly music is presented. Poor old Robin hope having the hair on his legs removed by industrial tape is somewhat painful. How boring he/she must be.
Eryl, Catonsville, Maryland, USA

A well written and gracious story. As a child I sang carols outside homes with kids collecting both pennies and wonderful memories of Christmases sixty odd years ago. Later I was a chorister and never really thought where all the people came to hear our version of the Nine Lessons and Carols. Now I know and am quite moved by the memory. Thank you.
Malcolm, Shawano, Wisconsin, USA

We are driving down to Dorset on Christmas Eve around 7pm (after the local Carol Service which involves no or little queues is over). You can have a lift if you want to attend the service.
Carsten, St neots

Immediately on finishing the article I said to my friend with whom i'd be spending christmas, that we would be listening to BBC radio 4 at 3pm. She asked no questions. just agreed (c: Happy Christmas to all fellow listeners. And remember, if we take Christ out of Christmas, all we're left with is M&S.
Debbie Garner, London, originally Pietermaritzburg RSA

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