For a thousand years, people have come to cathedrals at the coldest time of the year to be reminded that something better is coming, that the light will return. Nowadays, the anticipation of that moment is punctuated by the arrival of TV adverts and the counting-down of shopping dates, but in all the festive cacophony, it is still possible to hear music – the kind that promises us that amid all the tinsel and tat there is perhaps still space for wonder.
Nothing does this more effectively than the pure, young voice of a chorister. Whether it’s on Classic FM or the annual BBC broadcast of carols from King’s, every year we pause for a moment to listen and marvel at the way these children can sing. Then we carry on with our own celebrations, giving little thought to the seven-year-olds for whom Christmas is, in essence, another day at work.
And it’s hard work, too. Church attendance is dwindling, so the rest of the year the choristers’ audiences may be small, but at Christmas everything is different. At Winchester Cathedral, they have to put on the same carol service three times to make sure all the thousands of people who want to attend can squeeze in.
The choristers, who are pupils at the Pilgrims’ School adjacent to the cathedral, return after the rest of their classmates have gone home for the holidays and stay until Christmas Day. They rehearse intensively during this period and sing in public – either for a service or for a concert, or both – every day. Given that they are all between seven and 13 years old, it’s a punishing schedule after a busy school term. The adults in the choir – known as lay clerks – are all professional singers and the children are expected to sing to the same standard.
For all their musical prowess, they are still children. Following a double file of small, cloak-clad figures as they make their way from the school to the cathedral, I watch the boys race and push and shove around me as they go. One raises a stack of plastic cups to his eye and pretends to be a Dalek, threatening to exterminate his fellows. Another stops to poke at something in the gutter with a stick and then runs to catch up, cloak streaming.
Inside the cathedral, the ribs vault over our heads like a whale skeleton, neck-achingly high, meeting in the middle to form a great ceiling of bleached, carved bone. The boys disappear briefly to change and then, still teasing and groaning, they gather at the foot of a dark fir tree. It’s only when the candles they hold are lit that they are suddenly no longer boys but choristers, a perfect Christmas tableau with puddles of light illuminating their white ruffs and crimson cassocks. As they begin to sing “Away in a Manger”, the air in the cathedral quickens and hums along with them.
If staying at school for weeks to do hour after hour of choir practice after everyone else has left sounds like the worst sort of torture, these boys certainly don’t see it that way. The staff who remain at the school to look after the boys do their best to make “choir time” fun. The boys excitedly tell me about how the school rules banning Nerf guns – which fire foam bullets – are relaxed and that they are allowed to turn the dining hall into a battleground, upturning the tables and benches to make forts as they declare war on each other. If the weather is fine, long games of “capture the flag” take place on the school playing fields, which are partly encircled by the ancient city wall. There are a few historic games, too – they follow hundreds of years of chorister tradition by angling for paper fish from the landing in the deanery and play a complicated coin toss game in teams to win a coveted trophy.
Their commitment to their music tends to give them a startlingly mature outlook on certain aspects of life. Paddy, who, being in year eight, is one of the older boys in the choir, admits that being a chorister has altered his perception of what it means to be busy. “All the choristers complain that we don’t get enough free time, but when we do, we don’t know how to use it,” he explains. “It’s actually quite fun,” agrees Alex, who is a year younger. “I’d rather be at school doing stuff than sitting at home doing nothing.”
Ice skating is also a popular activity and because of their daily work in the cathedral, the boys get after-hours access to the rink set up just outside its walls. They look almost too much like a Christmas card, shooting about on skates in their cassocks. On Christmas cards, though, nobody breaks any bones – but Paddy has a fresh cast on his wrist, the result of a slip on the ice. “When I went to hospital, they gave me a choice of colour for my cast,” he says. Ever the dutiful chorister, he picked red, “because I thought it would blend in with my cassock”.
On 25 December at the Pilgrims’ School, 17 small boys will wake up early and dash downstairs to empty their stockings. (Their parents will join them for lunch but, for the moment, the boarding master’s wife plays both mum and Father Christmas.) Outside, the deputy head will let off a big firework, an unusual custom that puzzles those nearby who are not in the know – what is that booming noise, so early on Christmas morning? But parents, friends and parishioners will be listening out for the bang and sizzle. They know that the same children who are capering around in their pyjamas, delighting at the explosion, will soon be in Winchester Cathedral, candles lit and voices raised.