Sunday, December 18, 2011

Spreading Joy, Part 4 ~ The Best Christmas Ever

This is the last in my Advent series on remembered joys of Christmas past.

Today's story requires a bit of background.

My sister is almost as much of an Anglophile as I am. Back in the early 90s, shortly after my move to Wisconsin, she and I both fell in love with Baroque music. This naturally led us to public radio, which, when December rolled around, in turn opened our ears to a whole new kind of Christmas music: what I will call classic English carols, a rich heritage of music (much of it centuries old), much more varied than the handful of Christmas carols known by most Americans. Also thanks to public radio we discovered the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, a Christmas Eve service broadcast live around the world from King's College Chapel, Cambridge.

The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is, to my mind, an almost perfect worship service, consisting of nine Scripture readings - given by students, college and university representatives, and townspeople - alternating with Christmas songs sung by the Choir of King's College (and sometimes by the congregation). There is no homily or sermon; simply the Word and the music. All of this takes place in a building of great beauty and antiquity and, as I said, is broadcast live around the world each Christmas Eve.

My sister and I started getting together each year to listen to the Festival of Nine Lessons, and before we knew it we had a mini-tradition going. She would bring cinnamon rolls or some other yummy baked goods over; I would provide eggs, coffee and tea, and we'd sit and listen and enjoy the beautiful singing and the familiar readings which never got old. When the service was over, we'd sigh and say to each other, "Can you imagine what it would be like to be there in person? Maybe someday...."

Skip ahead to Christmas of 2003. As usual my sister and I had listened to the service together, probably for the ninth or tenth year in a row. That afternoon my nephew P (my sister's son) called and asked, "How was the radio service?" "Wonderful as usual," I replied. "How would you like to go next year?" he said.

I laughed and said, "You're kidding, right?" "No, I mean it," he said. "I'd like to take you and Mom to England next Christmas so you can go to hear it in person."

! ! !

I remember feeling slightly giddy, and having to lean up against a doorway. "Are you serious?" I kept asking. (I should add that P has a job which requires a lot of travel; consequently he has about a gazillion frequent-flyer miles which he uses for trips abroad - trips which occasionally include his lucky female relatives.)

He was quite serious, and the plans were set in motion for the best Christmas ever.

To say that I was excited would be an understatement of the greatest magnitude. To think that I would be going to London, that we would visit Cambridge and set foot in King's College Chapel, that we would hear the glorious organ and the choir firsthand, was overwhelming and joyful and a little bit frightening to one who had never travelled out of the States.

For my sister and me, that year seemed an awfully long time to wait. Needless to say we spent the next eleven and a half months thinking of, talking about, and planning for, the grand voyage. We applied for, and received, our passports  - with their exciting blank pages hinting at exotic and as-yet-unknown destinations. We bought clothes we felt would be appropriate for the trip (my major purchase was a decent overcoat.) My niece, Mr. M, and my sister's beau entered into our excitement, contributing financially to the enterprise and giving us trip-related birthday gifts. Meanwhile, my nephew was making all the arrangements, which included business-class travel (also known as the Avionic Lap of Luxury) and a stay in a very nice London hotel.

Finally the great day arrived - or perhaps I should say evening. We drove down to Chicago on a Tuesday (my sister, Mr. M and me) to my nephew's apartment, where we would leave our car. A stretch limousine had been ordered to take us to the airport and start off our trip in style (my niece and nephew really know how to treat their elders well). The four of us rode to the airport together - Mr. M was going to California to spend Christmas with his family while we disported ourselves across the pond.

And so, after flying through the night - a mostly sleepless night - my sister, my nephew and I landed in a new day and a new country.

We took the tube in to London, found our hotel and checked in, then stumbled sleepily out to find some food. We recruited the inner man (and woman) with a classic English breakfast, and then we were at a bit of a loss. We'd been thinking about very little else than this trip for some eleven and a half months, but we hadn't made any specific plans other than going to Cambridge on Christmas Eve - which was two days away. I pulled out the London A to Z (one of the thoughtful birthday gifts that year) for consultation, and my eyes fell on the words "Nelson's Column".

"Let's go to Trafalgar Square!" I said. I knew nothing about Trafalgar Square except its name and reputation as a gathering place in times of joy, so it seemed like a good place to start. We got back on the tube and made our way to Charing Cross station (oh, the thrill of these familiar names!). Climbing up out of the station, we were surprised to find ourselves confronted with the church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. (Somehow I'd never pictured it as being in the middle of the city like that. The name suggested a more rural setting.) We turned left, crossed the street, and found ourselves in Trafalgar Square, looking down Whitehall towards the Palace of Westminster.

That's when it hit me - I was really in England. It sounds very silly, but I started to cry. For years I had read about this land, this city, this place - and now, all at once, the whole of its great history and beauty seemed to come alive and to spread out before me in that first view down Whitehall. I walked over to my nephew, hugged him, and thanked him for the trip.

The nicest of nephews

We wandered happily around central London all afternoon, making delightful discoveries, amazed at how many iconic and historical sites are crammed cheek-by-jowl into a relatively small area, enjoying a festive tea / supper at the excellent Cafe in the Crypt of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. We grew ever sleepier, but were determined to stay awake until at least 7 o'clock - by which time we were very nearly comatose with sleep deprivation and physical tiredness. Finally we headed back to our hotel, to fall into deep and immediate sleep and awake much refreshed the next morning.

Thursday was spent sightseeing, taking in, among other things, the fascinating Imperial War Museum, and finishing up at night with a concert at St. Martin-in-the-Fields. ("Baroque by Candlelight" was the program name - doesn't that sound delightful?)

Friday morning, Christmas Eve, we rose early and breakfasted at the train station. We knew we needed to get to Cambridge early to stand in line. The Chapel service starts at 3 pm, but public seating is limited and many people are turned away each year when all the seats are filled.

We reached Cambridge at perhaps 9:00, took a bus into town, and, due to some misunderstood directions, ended up at the river behind King's College, thus approaching it from the rear - probably the best way to see the beautiful and remarkable Chapel.

A photo of my photo taken from the river - if you look closely you can see
the queue of people at the base of the Fellows' Building
to the right of the Chapel.
My nephew's much better digital photo

We made our way around into the quad, passing a long line of people waiting, to find hundreds more standing in an orderly queue that stretched around the quad and back to the entrance gates. (Some of the people at the head of the line had spent the night there.) Taking our place, we wondered how many people were in front of us. A helpful porter told us there were between five and six hundred people in line already. When we asked him if we would make it in, he shook his head and said "Maybe."

At the end of the queue, looking back at the side of the Chapel

We settled in for a long day of standing in queue, taking breaks in turns. At one point I walked over to the street market around the corner, where I bought some almonds and some California raisins for snacking. (It seemed ironic that I, who come from California, was buying this fruit of my former home in a place so far away.) The weather was luckily fairly fine although we had a few drizzles here and there - but we had come equipped with brollies so the rain didn't bother us.

At intervals friendly bobbies would come around with even friendlier bomb-sniffing dogs, to make sure there would be no unpleasant surprises. (We were surprised to learn that English Labradors are shorter and more barrel-chested than their American cousins.)

To while away the time, we chatted with the people around us in queue. The family in front, from Surrey I think, had brought their 80-year-old mum, a delightful lady who remembered listening to the service on the radio each year while baking mince pies for Christmas. Her daughter said they had thought it would be a treat for Mum to see the service live (and to have a break from a day of baking).

The lady behind us was a Cambridge resident, and had been to the service many times before; some years she got in, she told us, and other years she was too far back in the queue. One year she had reached the very gates, only to have them shut in her face as the building was full. She told us that if we could make it past a certain set of barricades we'd stand a very good chance of getting in.

Members of the King's College choir also came around every now and then. Wearing coats and long scarves, they would take up various positions along the queue and sing carols to cheer the waiting crowd.

Meanwhile, a second queue had formed in front of the Fellows' Building - a queue of those with reserved seats inside the Chapel. Early in the afternoon, these began slowly to enter the Chapel by the (I believe) South door. At long last our queue began also, very slowly, to move as the public began entering by the North door (which was out of our view, being around several corners).

By this time we were growing nervous and apprehensive about whether we would make it in. Had we left London too late? Had our misguided wandering to and from the river lost us just those few precious minutes that would make the difference? Only time would tell. We knew that if we didn't make it in, we could attend Clare College's chapel service next door. But, however nice to have a backup plan, we really wanted to get in to this Chapel - after all, we had flown across an ocean to do so.

As the queue moved ever more slowly (it seemed), we gradually made progress - around the side of the quad, behind the Fellows' Building, and finally past the barricades. We tried to tell ourselves that we were safe, that we would make it all the way. But porters were constantly (it seemed) coming by, counting heads, and it was always at our place in the queue that they began to shake their heads and turn back towards the Chapel.

Finally, finally, we were within sight of the North Gate. Around ten or fifteen of us were admitted past the last barrier and were standing clustered by the Chapel door, which had now closed. At intervals someone would open the door, give a number to the porter, and he would allow that many more people in. All agreed that the 80-year-old Mum should get the first seat available, and I'm happy to say that she and all her family made it in.

We were next in line. The call came for "One". We looked at each other, and my sister and nephew said, "You go." I walked in, hearing the sound of the organ prelude. Down the long aisle, past the hundreds of people who had been waiting all day and were already seated, past the wooden screen which separates the choir from the ante chapel, past the choir stalls, to an empty seat pointed out to me by yet another porter. (My seat, one of the "reserved" seats whose occupant had not come, was actually much better than those of the people at the front of the line. "The last shall be first" indeed. Very humbling.) Next to me was a young man wearing a York University sweatshirt, who told me that his brother was a member of the choir, and was to be one of the readers.

I looked up at the stunning stained glass, soon to grow dim in the winter twilight. I looked left and saw the famous Rubens painting The Adoration of the Magi. I looked up again, and up and up, at the delicate strength of the beautiful fan-vaulted ceiling. (If only Mr. M could see this, I kept thinking. And if only I could be sure my sister and nephew would make it inside.) Finally I looked right, and when I saw them coming down the aisle and being seated together a few rows away, tears of relief and joy came to my eyes. (I found out later that only two more people made it in behind them. So we were three of the very last five who got in the door. The Chapel seats more than a thousand.)

Then the music started - the music I had heard every year on the radio, and was now incredibly hearing in the flesh. A boy's high clear voice began to sing "Once in Royal David's City". Soon he was joined by the choir, then the congregation, with the organ behind and below and around, and the choristers' voices soaring above in glorious descant.

And then happened what is perhaps the very best thing of all. A hush fell over my spirit; the excitement and tension drained away; I was no longer in an exotic setting but, quite simply, at church, worshipping God in company with others both far and near. Which is right and proper and how it should be every time we go to church.

(Pause while the blogger wipes tears from her eyes in order to properly see the screen.)

The service continued, and concluded as it always had, with the Dean's blessing followed by congregation, choir and choristers singing "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing" and the jubilant organ resounding. As choir and clergy processed out, the organ broke into Bach's glorious setting of "In Dulci Jubilo" (which on the U.S. radio broadcast is ALWAYS cut short by the announcer, but which I could now at last hear in full).

After chatting to our neighbours and wishing them Merry Christmas, we shook the hand of the gentleman at the door, thanked him, and left the Chapel. As in a trance of tiredness mingled with joy, we took the train back to London.

The next day being Christmas, my sister and I walked up the street to the nearest church for Holy Communion. Later the three of us enjoyed a quiet (and delicious) meal at an Indian restaurant, then went back to the hotel for the Queen's Speech, an evening of British television, and phone calls to family members.

We had one more day in London before we headed home. We took in as many sights as we could on that last day, including Camden Town, Buckingham Palace, Covent Garden market, Leicester Square, the guitar-filled basement of the Hard Rock Cafe, and finally the Wellington Arch. And on Monday morning we were back at the airport waiting for our flight home as news of the Boxing Day Tsunami filled the television screens.

When we reached Chicago and went through U.S. Customs, the agent stamped my passport and said "Welcome Home." A very nice custom, I thought.

And then (to quote Laura Ingalls Wilder) Christmas was over. But what a happy Christmas it had been!

P.S. to my nephew P: I know I say this every year, but thank you again for your generous gift of this trip to England and the fulfillment of a dream. It was definitely the best Christmas ever. (And thanks for sharing your digital photos too.)

P.P.S. This coming Saturday morning, my sister and nephew will be over to continue our mini-tradition of listening to the live broadcast of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. If you've never heard this broadcast but would like to listen in, check your local public radio station. Or you can go to the American Public Media website for information about listening online.


Thanks to all of you who have shared in Spreading Joy this Advent season. Your comments and the stories of your own remembered joy of Christmas Past have given great joy to me. If you have a special tradition or Christmas memory you'd like to share, please leave a comment, or write a post of your own (as Ginnie and Snowcatcher have so delightfully done).

A joyful Christmas to you all.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~


  1. A beautiful story which speaks volumes to me. We have always listened to the Cambridge King's College carol service (I have the CD incase I get desperate) and England is my homeland. Every word you have written touched me deeply.

    My thoughts are with you this week and perhaps we can listen to the radio at the same moment on Christmas Eve?

    ps You are on my blog.....!

  2. What a wonderful post Sue. What wonderful memories. I am so happy for you that you got to fulfil your dream. What a generous nephew you have.
    The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols has been part of my English Christmas for as long as I can remember! My mother would always listen to it on the radio while making mince pies, just as you describe. Christmas began with that first solo voice: Once in Royal David's city ...
    And it still does. The timing of our day generally means we listen to the radio while busy with last minute Christmas preparations. And then later we watch the transmission of the service that is recorded for television earlier in December. Lights dimmed, candles lit, Bailey's poured, we begin Christmas again with that soaring voice. And I hope we always will.

  3. What a beautiful post and what a lovely gift. You have the world's best nephew. I am so glad you got to make this trip and then share it with us.

  4. I really enjoyed your telling of your visit, it was quite exciting wondering whether you'd all make it in or not. I'm so glad you did after coming all that way. What a thoughtful and generous nephew you have.
    I remember my Mum always trying to listen to the broadcast (while making mince pies!) but she'd keep getting interrupted by one of us four children squabbling or fighting, it wasn't as relaxing as it should be! If I'm around I do try and listen, but often I'm just not organised enough. I'll make a bigger effort this year though and will think of you listening too so many miles away. I'll not be making mince pies though as I did them yesterday.

  5. What a wonderful memory and such a generous nephew! I understand your tears, I was the same way on my first trip to England.
    Will have to give a listen to the music it sounds quite wonderful.

  6. What a lovely story, such generosity from your nephew. I can't imagine standing for that long to get in and then to have so much uncertainty at the last moment. I am so glad that you were all admitted. Your nephew is so tall! Are you the smallest one in the pictures? About my size I think.

    Enjoy the service again this year, if I am near a radio, I shall listen to it too and will send thoughts of Peace and Joy to you and your family.

  7. My eyes welled up with tears shortly before you mentioned whiping yours away. What a wonderful gift...and how lucky that you all got in. I've never heard about the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols...but I will definitely try to listen on Saturday.

    Thank you for the lovely post, Sue.

  8. I had tears welling up in my eyes almost the entire time, but when you said they would take one more, and your sister and nephew gave the seat to you... Oh, man, did that ever get me!!! I'm so glad they got in, too! But what an incredible Christmas gift, all the way around. No wonder this is your favorite. Something worth reliving every year.

  9. Like Snowcatcher, my tears started early, the moment you mentioned Lessons and Carols, one of my favorite services. I have had a recording of the King's College service forever (first in LP form, then tape - maybe it's time to buy a CD of it!) and love it. When we do this service, we process to Puer Nobis - Come Thou Redeemer of the Earth, starting with the women in unison (no boys choir available!, then the choir in parts, then the congregation). But I LOVE Once in Royal David's City, with the boy soprano's voice soaring on the first verse.

    You have the most awesome nephew - and sister. I didn't realize your sister lives close to you - I love knowing that, and that you two have such a wonderful Christmas Eve tradition.

    What a fabulous, fabulous experience - thank you so much for sharing it, Sue! (And thank you for this Advent series - so good for the soul, isn't it? I'll be posting my last one in the next day or two.)

  10. What a sweet story and a wonderful nephew! How lovely you got to live out your lifelong dream.

  11. Fabulous - I'm so glad for you. This year, I face my first year without the broadcast in I cannot remember how long. In 2010, we moved to New Zealand; that Christmas, we were in California celebrating an aunt's 100th birthday. But this year, we embark on our first summer Christmas. I don't think I will muster the committment to wake up at 04:00 to hear the selected lad face that silent chapel and hope to hit all his notes in the opening solo - but I know I shall be sorry to miss it. When I do listen, I will think of you and your great adventure, hearing it live.

  12. Thanks so much to all of you for your comments and stories! It was great fun for me to re-live this trip and to get out my tickets and souvenirs.

    Yes, I have the best nephew in the world. (And yes I'm the short one in the photos.)

    Miranda - I can't quite imagine a summer Christmas (although growing up in California some of them were quite warm). But I wish you a very merry Christmas there on the other side of the world.

  13. I'm a little late - but I finally made time to read your story of this wonderful Christmas gift. A tear jerker for sure! So pleased to hear that all three of you made it and ot be the three of the last five of a was meant to be. :-) Thank you for sharing.

  14. My emotions are quite simular to snowcatcher and Ginni. I had tears in my eyes the whole time. I got to go on my trip of my lifetime in Dec 2009-Jan 2010 to London with my daughter's H S band that marched in the New Year's Day Parade. I wasn't supposed to go because of financal reasons, then all kinds of thing "fell in place" that made it possible. I so understand when you cried when it hit you that you were really in England. So hard to explain to alot of people. I loved everything I experienced over there. I will definately look into the links you posted for the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. What an awesome tradition for you and your sister. I am so happy you, your sister, and nephew made it inside.
    Thanks for sharing your memories.
    (My only regret is some pictures must not be available any more... no problem, I substituted my on mental images :) )

  15. What a glorious and most wonderful Christmas you had in England... How very fortunate that you and your nephew and Sister made into the service too.. Your Nephew is a very thoughtful and kind person to give you and your sister such a very very lovely Christmas Pressie in the England. Wonderful photos. Hugs Judy


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