St Albans Cathedral Choristers taking time out from their rehearsals for some snowballing / Anthony Lowth

It’s impossible to imagine Christmas without music. The choristers at St Albans Cathedral tell Alex Johnson what makes this time of year particularly special for them and their families.

While you are sticking batteries in presents on Christmas Eve or settling back in front of the fire with a glass of something warming, spare a thought for the boys of the St Albans Cathedral Choir who are hurrying through the cold streets of the city to their 10.30pm rehearsal for Midnight Mass.

Christmas is the busiest time of year for the Cathedral Choir with services on Christmas Day and Christmas Eve as well as two Lessons & Carols concerts and other carolling commitments. These are in addition to their normal routine of daily rehearsals and six services a week which they sing with the dozen male singers, the Lay Clerks. The Girls Choir at the Cathedral also add services on December 24 and 25 to their normal weekly schedule. It’s the climax of another hectic 12 months during which both choirs have sung at the Royal Albert Hall, recorded a CD, and sung in hundreds of services, as well as concerts, outreach work with primary schools, weddings, and tours.

But it is more than a demanding time of the year for the choristers, who are all aged between 7 and 14, it is a key event in their choir lives. For the five eldest boys in the Cathedral Choir, this will be their sixth and final Christmas as choristers and the first of the major ‘last time we sing this’ events.

“I love Christmas,” says this year’s head chorister Thomas Johnson. “The singing becomes difficult because of the cold but the atmosphere is second to none. I’ll never forget the first time I walked down the pitch black cathedral carrying my candle, lighting up a small glow around me and dripping wax all over my music. It’s sad to think that I won’t be here this time next year, rehearsing and performing carols. I’m going to miss singing as a treble, but hopefully I’ll be able to return as a Lay Clerk one day and be a member of the choir again.”

It is also a big moment for the youngest choristers too, who are expected to be at the top of their game night after night during the week before Christmas Day.

“Aidan was only 8 for his first Midnight Mass so we were a bit worried about how he'd cope and whether he'd be in meltdown on Christmas Day,” says his mother Emily Tanner. “We needn't have worried. He was asleep soon after 7pm on Christmas Eve and bagged three hours sleep before we woke him with a mince pie before his rehearsal.”

Pippa Lawrence says she enjoys singing “great music” in the girls' choir at Christmas. “But it's hard work,” she explains. “By the time you get to the end of the school term, you're exhausted and ready to flop but you still have to keep going with choir rehearsals and services right up to Christmas Day. The first year I did it, I got a horrible cold. I'd done all the rehearsals but had no voice when it came to the services and couldn't take part, it was really disappointing.”

The latest statistics from the Church of England show that while one of the main reasons people go to church is the music, the number of boy choristers has been falling gradually over the last decade from around 870 in 2003 to 780 last year (though happily this has been countered by increasing numbers of girl choristers in cathedrals, rising from 540 to 650). For the St Albans choristers, who attend normal school during the day and must fit in rehearsals before and after school as well as at the weekend, it’s a tough regime. So why do they do it when they could be out snowballing or playing FIFA 15?

“I loved the music,” says Fred Jenkins, the Cathedral Choir’s head chorister two years ago, “but that wasn't the most important thing. My friends at school used to ask me why I carried on, what was so good about it. I answered by asking them why they liked playing in a football team and told them that my answer was the same. The fun, the teamwork, whether things were going well or badly, the routine, the little traditions we created as a group, the sense of achievement when it all came together. All those feelings felt particularly strong at Christmas. Since stopping choir, I have kept up my musical interests, but those don't replace the almost family-like atmosphere that choir had.”

And of course it is not just the choristers who are affected by their Christmas schedules. When Lucas Roseden joined the choir, it had an enormous impact on his family’s Christmas as his Swedish mother Kristina explains.

“We have had to ditch our tradition of celebrating Swedish Christmas on Christmas Eve,” she laughs. “The 24 December IS Christmas in Sweden whereas Christmas Day is a bit like Boxing Day in the UK. Until joining the choir we had the luxury of celebrating Christmas twice. Our Swedish Christmas on the 24th involved going to the Swedish church in London to join other expats in a traditional Swedish Christmas buffet, dancing around the Christmas tree Swedish style, and meeting a Swedish Santa. We would also open our Christmas presents from Swedish family on Christmas Eve. Now we only celebrate Christmas English-style.”

A choir Christmas means adjustments for all families, whether it means the boys and girls have to wait to open their presents on the big day or leaving the main family meal until Boxing Day.

“As a family, the busy Christmas schedule is a part of the commitment to the chorister way of life that we have fully accepted all year round,” says Sally Gannon whose sons Theo and Kit are both choristers. “The boys are excited to be 'working' at such a special time and feel very much centre stage. They see the queues for Lessons and Carols and know people have come to hear them. They realise that they are a part of Christmas tradition that provides meaning for people and support each other through a tough schedule. They're only blessed with a few years of this wonderful time before they turn into men.”

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