Education: What the little angels are really like

For most of us, the Christmas Day carols sung by boys from King's College School in Cambridge are an oasis of calm. Gillian and Charles Perkins describe how, as choristers' parents, their lives are turned upside down by preparations and performances

There's no escaping it. Christmas starts early for a family of choristers. The boys' rehearsals must start some while back, but even for us at home, it starts to feel like Christmas a good 10 days before. The famous televised Carols from King's (broadcast from the chapel at King's College, Cambridge) was filmed last year on Sunday 14 December, and all of us parents of boys at King's College School, trooped into the chapel along with lots of other admirers of the choir, friends and college members. Before we start, have to be rehearsed too, just in case we have forgotten how the lines of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" go from last year (as if we could). The director Stephen Cleobury's jovial reminders are much the same every year and then there's always the question of the balance. Will the boys be able to match our loudest singing with their descant lines?

That's when Christmas begins for us - the first sound of those well-loved descants ringing around the vaulting, even just for the balance test, always brings back memories of all sorts of Christmases and the hopes for this one too.

After that comes the first of many anticipations. Which boy is going to sing "Once in Royal David's City" on telly? We never know, (nor do they), until they have processed in and Stephen's chosen chorister is very quietly signed to come forward. Last year our older son, John, was head chorister and we shared in his gentle rivalry with the other boys and in the friendly anticipation among the other parents. It was not something we were looking forward to, because we knew that several of the boys could do a splendid job. In the end it was down to three possibles, and two had to be disappointed, John among them. Edward does it really well, with no trace of nerves.

After all the media attention and photographs, it must be hard for the boys to go back into ordinary school the next day, but that's life. The next time we see them is later the same week on the platform of St John's Smith Square in London. There they sing a selection of music, with Britten's "A Ceremony of Carols" one of the highlights. The older boys process in singing that, leaving the youngest boys, including our second son Oliver, sitting on the platform waiting for them. Even they seem self-assured and unbothered by the crowded church. The older boys sing solos in the Britten, and in an anthem by Orlando Gibbons. The highlight of the evening, for the boys at least, is the presence of Mr Bean in the audience.

We drive them back to Cambridge afterwards, and enjoy a car full of boyish gossip and excitement, some of it about their trip by train to Edinburgh the next day. There they repeat the St John's concert, and return to Cambridge by train on Friday, grateful for the kindness of their hosts and the audience at the Queen's Hall.

Then we have two lovely and very noisy days at home. John and Oliver still have the energy to get into the more common Christmas mode: "Can we have a really BIG tree this year? Can we go shopping for presents? No, Mum, you're not to come. Have you made fudge yet? Why not, haven't you had time? Can we have more cards to send? Can I add this to my Christmas list?" And so the merry chaos envelops us all, and in two days flat we get our own Christmas sorted out.

But the whole thing has to go back on hold again - the boys must return to school on Sunday! Fortunately not for work, but so that they can fit in their annual panto visit with the Cleoburys that evening. This year the star of Cambridge's panto is Otis the Aardvark, a great favourite with all the boys!

Monday sees them back at work with yet another Christmas concert, this time at the Royal Albert Hall in London when, with quite a large gathering of other parents, we watch them from so far away give a stunning account of some of this year's favourite carols. Yet again, there's not a seat to be had. They go back to school on the coach, so that they can begin work in earnest the next morning when the final practices start for the real Nine Lessons and Carols service of Christmas Eve.

That leaves us at home with just one day to wrap presents, make up beds for guests and final food shopping. Pick up the turkey from the butcher, make the stuffing, cook the ham, all those things which my mother did years ago, and which we still do. A busy day, since we have three other chorister families coming to stay, and beds need to be moved and put-you- ups put up.

Wednesday 24 December dawns, not cold, but very windy. King's College is quite the windiest place in town as we queue outside the chapel. And it starts to rain. We shall get wet before we are done, though we take longer than we mean to getting ourselves into college, and by that time the rain is starting to ease off. We catch up with the boys for five minutes or so when they tumble out from practice around 12.30pm, and there is much laughter and betting on who is going to sing "that solo" again. Bets are on the star of the television show doing a repeat, and John is more worried about his solo in the newly commissioned carol by Thomas Ades. There's some doubt about which chorister will read the first lesson, too; Geoffrey, one of the senior boys, has laryngitis and is not going to be able to read loudly enough. It sounds as if Ben, another boy in his last year, will have some emergency practicing to do.

While they go off to have lunch at school, we manage to keep warm thanks to our bring-and-share picnic. Mulled wine in a Thermos flask is a real help, as is the company of good friends. In the real queue - for the public - pride of place goes to a number of ex-choristers who have been camping all night, it seems. Thankfully, the chapel staff have been looking after them, but they are all clearly very wet and bedraggled. Meanwhile, we hear that this year's choristers have been seen having a game of footie back at school, now that it has stopped raining. They must be getting very muddy, but no doubt will be cleaned up before they have to walk back to college.

More sedately, the choral scholars, the men of the choir, come to serenade us during their lunch break with close harmony versions of carols and of "Chattanooga Choo-choo" and the like. Then we wait, and wait, and at last are let into the warmth of the chapel. It fills up so quickly, and is absolutely crammed with all those who have waited far longer than us lucky ones. That final anticipation is awesome - but on the dot of 3pm, in they come, Edward is chosen again, and off he goes, singing as if there were nothing special about it all, even though he's being listened to by so many millions around the world. How different this is from childhood memories of decorating the tree on Christmas Eve, and listening to that famous opening. Little did we ever dream that we would be part of it in years to come. The familiar procession of lessons and carols flows over us: and however many times we hear them, they still give us an opportunity to remember the basis of Christmas festivities.

And afterwards, well, there's tea in college first. The boys rush into salmon sandwiches and chocolate meringues - heaven help the college caterer who decides such things are not necessary - no matter how many times we tell them that they have dinner in less than two hours. We wander back to school where we parents have organised silly party games - just in case any of the boys has any surplus energy. Then comes Christmas dinner for all the chorister families, who are more like one big family with around 70 of us all told. Grannies, uncles, older brothers, and younger sisters all come.

Afterwards, tradition has it that the head chorister's father pays tribute to the boys, but never seriously. Our send-up of them all this year is very loosely based on Snow White and her 20 or so Helpers. Head choristers give out staff presents, too, guides to help them manage the new computers, musical boxes of "Want to teach the world to sing" and silly hats are clear favourites with the boys if not the recipients.

Other parents give out the annual spoof awards to some of the boys to celebrate their achievements and exploits; the Really Wild Award is given to Geoffrey who collected the most creepy-crawlies in his bedroom on the summer tour to Barbados. Then there's one of the boys' favourites, the John Boulter Bucket Award, which is named after the long suffering chapel administrator. Generally given to the unfortunate member who's been sick the most times during the year, this year it's translated into the Toronto Lampshade Award and given to the luckless boy who mistook a large lampshade for a waste bin at Toronto airport on the summer tour.

We leave the boys watching the video of the televised carols shown earlier in the evening - it's difficult to watch, let alone hear properly with all their ribald comments as accompaniment. Even when we get home without them, Christmas Eve night is not exactly quiet either. The other parents and ex-choristers staying overnight with us chat over a glass of this and that for quite a long time into the night.

Christmas morning is another early start; for the boys, the chase around the school to find the headmaster starts on the dot of 8am; for once it takes them a long time to track him down in the school basement. For us, another queue starts about 10am for the Christmas communion service. How different the atmosphere - much more relaxed, with the chapel full of friends and families, and a chance for us all to sing out, too. Home for lunch - ham and baked potatoes - and then at last we get to those important things like presents. Phone calls to the rest of the family, all enjoying more normal Christmases, help to overcome the sense of anti-climax and sheer exhaustion that sets in.

But tomorrow is another day, and even though we know it's really Boxing Day, we celebrate Christmas with turkey, stuffing, funny hats and mince pies and all, with another house full of people. It's a little strange doing it a day late, and carols are absolutely banned until next year.

John, Ben and Geoffrey finished their time as choristers at King's in July of this year. They won music scholarships to Uppingham, Harrow and Rugby

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

    Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on