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Choir boys at King's College, Cambridge (archive image)

Christmas tradition and worship from BBC Religion & Ethics

This Christmas the BBC will explore two of the best loved traditions of Christmas in two major documentaries for BBC Two, The Truth About Carols and The Star Of Bethlehem – Behind The Myth which uncovers new evidence to support the view that the description of the Star of Bethlehem in St Matthew's Gospel was based upon a real event.


Sir Cliff Richard talks to Sally Magnusson about how his faith has shaped his five decades in showbiz in a special one-hour festive edition of Songs Of Praise.


Plus, there will be a chance to hear the very best traditional Christmas music from the quiet splendour of King's College Cambridge for A Festival Of Nine Lessons And Carols, and the joyous celebration of the Songs Of Praise Christmas Big Sing from London's Royal Albert Hall.


There is nothing more comforting and evocative than a traditional carol sung by an angelic choir at Christmas. Or so you would think.


In The Truth About Carols, composer Howard Goodall uncovers the often turbulent and uncomfortable relationship between carols and the celebration of Christmas.


Though they have been around since the 12th century, carols have only been a feature of church services for the last 150 years.


For centuries the Church tried to keep carols out, believing them to be pagan or of no value, because they were written by human hand.


Carols have been used as secret codes, saved from the brink of extinction and been the subject of state censorship.


The carols we sing seem set in stone and yet they can have more than 400 regional variations. Their roots are in dance, in folk culture, street theatre and in pre-Christian religion; and yet they've ended up as the quintessential expression of the Christmas story.


Throughout the programme, there are a variety of performances – including folk star Bella Hardy singing the medieval Coventry Carol; the Purbeck Village Choir performing the carols of 18th century England and the Truro Cathedral Choir recreating the very first service of Nine Lessons and Carols.


In Star Of Bethlehem - Behind The Myth, produced by Atlantic Productions, new developments in technology are allowing scientists, astronomers and historians to map the night skies of the ancient world with extraordinary accuracy.


As they study the movements of the planets and stars around the time of the birth of Christ, could the star of Bethlehem have been a triple conjunction of planets, an occultation of Jupiter and Saturn, or even a supernova?


Christmas preparations start on BBC One on the first Sunday in Advent with Christmas Voices, an hour-long programme of inspirational song, chat and debate presented by Lesley Garrett.


Songs Of Praise will prepare for the season with four special Advent programmes.


The first on Saint Andrew's Day (30 November) comes from Linlithgow, birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots.


The second is a special programme celebrating Sir Cliff Richard's 50 years in show business. Cliff talks to Sally Magnusson about his faith, work and life over the past five decades.


Recorded in front of an invited audience representing the charities he has supported throughout his career, Sir Cliff describes how his attitude towards others has changed, and how he likes to remain an enigma.


There will also be a chance to listen to some of his yuletide favourites.


On the third Sunday of Advent Ruthie Henshall joins Aled Jones at the Royal Albert Hall in front of a packed auditorium of Songs Of Praise viewers who raise the roof in A Christmas Big Sing.


On the Sunday before Christmas there is a traditional carols by candlelight from Shrewsbury.


For many people Christmas truly begins on Christmas Eve as a lone choir boy sings the first verse of Once In Royal David's City in the candle-lit splendour of the chapel of King's College Cambridge.


The choir sing carols old and new and the story of Christmas is told in the words of the King James Bible. Carols From King's is broadcast on BBC Two.


BBC Radio will be at the centre of programming this Christmas starting on BBC Radio 3 on 30 November, A Service For Advent With Carols live from the Chapel of St John's College Cambridge.


Every year cathedrals and collegiate churches up and down the land are packed for this special service of words from scripture, and music, giving a foretaste of Christmas.


Perhaps most renowned of all is this Advent Carol service live from St John's College Cambridge.


Highlights this year include the anthem by James MacMillan: A New Song; John Gardner's Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day; and John Stainer's How Beautiful Upon The Mountains.


BBC One broadcasts the first Eucharist of Christmas live from Peterborough Cathedral, celebrated by the Bishop of Peterbrough, the Right Rev Ian Cundy.


The Cathedral will also be the setting for the Christmas Day Eucharist celebrated by the Dean, the Very Rev Charles Taylor.


Radio 3 will also present A Meditation On Christ's Nativity with the choir of Clare College, Cambridge, a service of music and readings including the first broadcast performance of Ex Maria Virgine - a sequence of Christmas carols by John Tavener completed on Christmas Day 2005.


Live from Lancing College, Sussex – the very institution which commissioned the work 60 years ago and the location of its world premiere – the BBC Concert Orchestra, BBC Singers and Choristers of St Paul's Cathedral perform Benjamin Britten's Cantata St Nicolas, conducted by Paul Brough.


St Nicolas presents a series of legendary incidents in the life of Nicolas, patron saint of children, sailors, and travellers.


The part of Nicolas is sung by solo tenor – originally Peter Pears, Britten's long-term lover, a former pupil of Lancing College, and later a member of the BBC Singers – but here Andrew Kennedy - while the choirs transform themselves into various contrasting characters during the drama and relate the adventures with the conviction of eye-witnesses while tying the story together with their prayers and praise.


The concert also includes Britten's Ceremony Of Carols, originally composed for the boys of Westminster Cathedral – and a wonderful vehicle in tonight's performance for the Choristers of St Paul's Cathedral – and Herbert Howells' popular carol-anthems, performed by the BBC Singers, which include the gently lyrical A Spotless Rose and Here Is the Little Door.


During the interval of this live broadcast, Louise Fryer presents Twenty Minutes, which explores the story of how Britten's St Nicolas came to be written.


The piece was commissioned to celebrate the centenary of Lancing College and this documentary feature uses Britten's letters and other archival materials, and talks to some of the surviving members of the first performance, to hear more about this remarkable piece and the effect it had on those who first performed it.


The performance of St Nicolas will be filmed in high quality vision so music lovers can watch as well as hear the concert at


It will also be the first Red Button offering for television from Radio 3.


Joan Bakewell explores areas of belief with artists, thinkers and other public figures in Belief, a returning series of programmes for Radio 3.


In a society where the arena of belief has become increasingly personal and subjective, religion remains a significant influence in society.


Joan Bakewell explores in conversation with her guests the influences that have shaped them, the ideas they have about life's big questions and how what they believe affects both their personal and working lives.


Confirmed guests include Bishop Michael Nazir Ali, Abdal Hakim Murad, Muslim Chaplain of Cambridge University, author Marina Warner, writer and columnist AN Wilson and Rabbi Tony Bayfield.


On Sunday 21 December, on BBC Radio 2, Sunday Half Hour invites listeners to join Brian D'Arcy and Methodist College choirs at the Belfast Fisherwick Presbyterian Church for a programme featuring well-loved and traditional carols and Bible readings telling the nativity story.


And on Christmas Eve, in Carols By Candlelight, Aled Jones presents the Chapter House Choir of York Minster, directed by Stephen Williams, performing Christmas music, old and new, from the Gothic surrounds of York Minster's 13th Century Chapter House.


And Aled will also be on hand to welcome in Christmas Day with Good Morning Christmas Live.


BBC Radio 4's Christmas offering starts on Christmas Eve with A Festival Of Nine Lessons & Carols live from the Chapel of King's College, Cambridge.


Ninety years ago, shortly after the end of the First World War, the then Dean of King's, Eric Milner-White, devised and led the service in the College Chapel for the first time.


Ten years later, in 1928, it was first transmitted by the BBC.


The first Mass Of Christmas will be broadcast live on Radio 4 from the spectacular setting of Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral.


As Liverpool's year as European Capital of Culture draws to a close, Christmas carols ring out from the iconic Catholic cathedral as the choir and congregation assemble to celebrate the traditional service of Midnight Mass for the Feast of Christmas.


In his homily, the Archbishop of Liverpool, Most Rev Patrick Kelly, will explore how the birth of a baby into poverty and fear 2,000 years ago could have significance to our lives in the 21st century.


The Christmas Service will come from Bath Abbey.


The fine choir of Bath Abbey under the direction of Dr Peter King are joined by a packed congregation for a wealth of Christmas carols old and new, at this special service of word, music and prayer.


In God And The Movies, Richard Coles investigates the religious phenomena sweeping through Hollywood – as big studios place solid and sometimes explicit Christian theology at the centre of some of the biggest blockbusters.


The Sony Award-winning series Beyond Belief returns to Radio 4 in December, launching a new series of programmes exploring the place of faith in today's complex world.


Ernie Rea is joined every week by three guests who discuss how their particular religious tradition affects their values and way of looking at the world, often revealing hidden and contradictory truths.






Category: BBC One; BBC Two; Radio
Date: 26.11.2008
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