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Did you know that if you live in England, there’s a good chance that you break the law every Christmas Day, without knowing it? In 1551, King Edward VI passed a law demanding that citizens must walk to church on Christmas Day. That law has never been repealed.

Alexandra Coghlan has dug the truth out from layers of sedimented myth and legend and her enjoyable Carols from King’s is packed like a well-stuffed Christmas stocking with fascinating facts. The author, who was a choral scholar at Trinity College, Cambridge, describes the difference between a hymn and a carol, and explains that Christmas was banned altogether in 1647 by the Puritans. Even the Victorians didn’t approve of men and women singing together!

She tells us that the first Christmas tree was set up at Queen’s Lodge in Windsor in December 1800, almost 50 years before Victoria and Albert got around to it. And Coghlan points out that the French for partridge is une perdrix, giving a possible explanation for the presence of a pear tree in the well-known carol.

Organist Arthur Mann arrived at King’s College, Cambridge, in 1876. Mann allowed the public to witness music-making. Prior to this, any visitor who wished to attend a service needed a written order from a college fellow.

The claim is made that never before has the story of carols and their festive performance at King’s been told. One can easily believe that. In fact, it is astonishing how recent a phenomenon the service of Nine Lessons and Carols really is, only being celebrated in Cambridge for the first time in 1918. Any contemporary survey of carols from King’s would not be complete without reference to the television programme of that name which, ‘although it began in 1954 on an irregular basis, has been an annual broadcast since the early 1990s,’ says Coghlan.

Throughout this account much attention is focused on the King’s College Chapel building, and rightly so. Alexandra Coghlan has given us a splendid account of a beautiful building, and an important musical tradition. The words and music to more than 30 carols are included, fully notated.

JOHN ROBERT BROWN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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