carols by candlelight

The First Carols By Candlelight Originated in Australia in 1938 organised by Norman Banks

Australia has a few unique Christmas traditions like seafood lunches and Christmas at the beach, but did you know that we have also contributed to the International culture of Christmas?

Although carols and carol singing have a long world wide history, the community event of Carols by Candlelight, where people gather outdoors in a park and sing carols by candlelight originated in Melbourne Australia in 1938. Since then events called Carols by Candlight have become a tradition the world over.

Carols by Candlelight was started by radio announcer Norman Banks in Melbourne, Australia. A man with a passion for Sports, he was chosen to cover the 1952 Helsinki and 1956 Melbourne Olympics. He had a wonderful command of English, a sensitive insight into current affairs, and interviewed all manner of stars. He is Australia’s only radio identity with an MBE for outstanding services to broadcasting.

He may be remembered for the Great Debate team, or for Voice of the Voyager, where visited Melbourne ports and interviewed passengers disembarking from ships, from new immigrants to celebrities of the day.  Norman Banks died in 1985, but his Carols by Candlelight tradition continues worldwide. At Christmas, he should be remembered for starting Carols by Candlelight and as chairman of the World Carols by Candlelight Foundation.

The Inspiration for the first Carols by Candlelight

On Christmas Eve in 1937 after a late night at work, Norman Banks saw a woman sitting by a window. Her face was lit by candlelight, and she was listening to Away in a Manger on the radio and singing along.

Wondering how many other Australians spent Christmas alone, preparing for a Christmas with no-one to share their traditions with, he started to think about how people could be brought together to sing Christmas carols and be with people, not alone.

Recalling the event years later, Banks said: “I was enthralled. I thought, if one old lady could do that, what about 1000 people?”

He started to suggest the idea, to organise a community event to overcome what to many people was a lonely time of the year. To gather a large group of people to all sing Christmas carols together by candlelight. With much effort to overcame many sceptics and various difficulties, Banks managed to stage the first Carols by Candlelight the following Christmas, on Christmas Eve in 1938.

The first ever Carols by Candlelight was held in Alexandra Gardens in Melbourne and was attended by around 10,000 people. On that first night people gathered at midnight to sing carols with a 30 strong choir, two soloists and the Metropolitan Fire Brigade Band.

The 1940’s Carols by Candlelight

During the dark hours of World War II and “Brownout” restrictions, people were forced indoors but Carols by Candlight brought soldiers and civilians together and introduced some Aussie carols. As peace returned, it was decided that the event needed a charitable base and that donations raised from Carols by Candlelight, would go to the Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind (RVIB).

The event attracted up to 100,000 people and was given a permanent home at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl in Melbourne’s Domain Gardens.

Norman Banks wrote the lyrics to the Melbourne Carol, with the music of to Bach’s Jesus, Joy of Man’s Desiring.

The first well-known identity to perform at Carols was Gladys Moncrieff in 1942 – beginning a Carols by Candlelight tradition of featuring famous performers.

Gladys Moncrieff Playlist – sorry no Christmas songs

1950 – 1960s Carols by Candlelight

The first telecast of Carols By Candlelight was presented by GTV9 as part of its pre-launch test transmissions in 1956, but it did not become an annual telecast until picked up by Melbourne’s ATV0 in 1969

In 1959, legendary rocker Johnny O’Keefe was asked to perform, helping to keep families interested in attending together at Christmas.

1970 – 1980s Carols by Candlelight

1974 Carols By Candlelight and Bobby Limb’s Sound Of  Christmas broadcast in colour on television, as well as the ABC’s via satellite coverage of the opening ceremony of the Holy Year, followed by midnight mass from the Vatican.

The Nine Network took over televising the event in 1979 and  GTV9 newsreader Brian Naylor became the main Carols by Candlight host for ten years. Ray Martin then became the main host for 18 years.

1978 “Johnny Farnham again showed his class and versatility with his great performances on both the special It’s Just Another New Year’s Eve and at the Carols By Candlelight event. Farnham is the greatest entertainer Australia has ever produced.” D. Bell, VIC. (televisionau.com 1978)

1990 – 2000 Carols by Candlelight

1994 Ray Martin hosts the annual Carols By Candlelight (9pm, Nine), live from the Myer Music Bowl in Melbourne, featuring Marina Prior, Tina Arena, Debra Byrne, Rhonda Burchmore and John  Williamson.

John Farnham – Marys Boy Child

Not Sure What Year this is – late 1980s early 1990s

Carols by Candlelight from 2000 on

2007 This year’s Carols By Candlelight will mark the 50th year the event has been held at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl. Performers this year will include former Australian Idol winner Anthony Callea (who is also the ambassador of this year’s event), The Choir Of Hard Knocks (from the ABC series of earlier this year), the Australian cast of the stage production Guys And Dolls, Kate Ceberano, Rachael Beck, Ian Stenlake and Carols regulars Hi-5, Denis Walter, Marina Prior and Silvie Paladino. (televisionau.com 2007)

From 2008, Carols by Candlilight was presented by Today show hosts Lisa Wilkinson and Karl Stefanovic, and since 2013 by Lisa Wilkinson and Mornings co-host David Campbell.

Playlist of various Carols by Candlelight Singers

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