The boys choir is a feature of Christmas in Westminster Cathedral. Rita Wall meets the choristers.
THERE are always a few essential services needed on Christmas day — the fire brigade, emergency staff in hospitals, the police force. And you can't have Christmas at Westminster Cathedral without the choirboys. They are part of the building, part of the Christmas fabric. Cardinal Vaughan's vision in 1901, when he founded the school, rings especially true at Christmas time, when crowds flock to hear the boys sing.
And this year, the appearance of the choir will be a tribute to recent efforts to maintain the school. "Our history in recent times has not been an easy one," explains head Peter Hannigan. "In 1976 we nearly closed because of a lack of pupils and low funds. But the church hierarchy came forward with a commitment to the work of the school in the friendly figure of Cardinal Basil Hume of Westminster."
After much hard work there are now 60 day boys and 30 choristers and the school is thriving.
"Our standards are high. Each prospective student has to come for a day and go through rigorous singing and academic tests," says Mr Hannigan. The boys have to be able to keep up with their academic work while putting in 15 extra hours per week for musical instruction. For their first year, they are known as probationers learning the rudiments of their trade. In the second year they enter the choir as full members.
Parents of potential pupils are often nervous of boarding schools and regret separation, especially at Christmas. But Mr Hannigan dispels any such fears. "At Christmas, having a boy here opens up a whole new festive spirit. The world of music and the beautiful ceremonies bring everybody a little closer to the real message of Christmas."
The day-boys finish at the end of term, while the choristers stay on to prepare for the Christmas season. Like other young boys, they're looking forward to the celebration but because of their added role, there is an edge to their excitement, Mr Hannigan says with a smile.
"But it's important to remember that these boys are experienced in performing for special occasions. They have sung at St Peter's, Rome, with Pope John II present, and this year they joined the renowned choir at Monserrat in Spain. Singing with professionals, making records, the choir is well prepared for audiences and congregations around the world."
As part of their pre-Christmas preparations the choir sings at the nearby Westminster Children's Hospital, bringing messages of good cheer to those confined to bed.
Midnight mass at the cathedral draws a huge congregation from the London area and beyond. The ceremony, complete with choir, has become a family tradition for many. Parents of choristers who live in and around London often try and get to this mass. They are invited into the school afterwards for light refreshments and to view the Christmas decorations made by the enthusiastic pupils. But the boys are quietly encouraged to their beds as soon as possible, for it is an early start on Christmas morning.
And the stockings have to be filled, says Mr Hannigan. There's not much sleep for the head cum Santa Claus. Breakfast is at 7.30 am, and with 30 youngsters on the premises and stockings to be fully explored, there is great excitement and little need for a morning call. Mass is at 10.30 am.
There is Christmas dinner at the school at one and then the boys go over to Archbishop's House to find individually wrapped Christmas presents under the cardinal's Christmas tree.
Jonathan Beatty from Saffron Walden, Essex, who is in his last year as a choir member, says this is "nearly the best part of Christmas day". The cardinal seems to "always know what you want", he grins.
After vespers, the boys prepare to travel home. For many there is a long journey ahead. Simon Bolton from Wakefield, Yorkshire won't be home until 7.30 pm. "But 1 don't mind, because I get a second Christmas dinner then and there are still all my presents waiting to be opened at home."