An Aussie tradition: Carols by Candlelight

By Australian Geographic 22 November 2018
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Carols by Candlelight is a much-loved Australian Christmas tradition, but you may not be familiar with its humble beginnings in Victoria.

IN 1937, popular radio presenter for 3KZ Norman Banks was walking through the streets of St Kilda, Victoria when he spotted an elderly woman singing carols alone on Christmas eve, her face lit up by a single candle.

The scene gave him an idea: what if, rather than singing carols alone, people could come together, ensuring no one spent Christmas eve by themselves? The event would be called ‘Carols by Candlelight’.

This year marks the 80th anniversary of the first official Carols by Candlelight, which was held at Alexandra Gardens in Melbourne on Christmas eve in 1938 and, thanks to Banks’ high profile from his radio presenting, attracted 10,000 carollers.

It was held at the Gardens for the next 21 years, after which the event moved to Melbourne’s Sidney Myer Music Bowl, with attendee numbers growing to 100,000. According to a 1949 article in The Argus – a daily newspaper in Melbourne at the time – Carols by Candlelight was the “first Australian ceremony which has attracted worldwide attention”.

The radio broadcast of the original 1938 event was first produced and distributed by Radio Australia, which was said to bring “Melbourne, Australia, to the people of North America”. According to music and cultural studies expert Liz Giuffrey, writing in The Conversation, Melbourne’s Carols by Candlelight have been broadcast on Channel Nine since 1969.

Each year, different Carols by Candlelight events take place across Australia, from fireworks and festivities on Fraser Island in Queensland to the Christmas parades held in Armadale, Western Australia that kick off the night.

(Image credit: Victorian Collections)

After it was first broadcast on television in colour in the early 1970s, it’s since become a star-studded event, with the likes of John Farnham, Kylie Minogue and Delta Goodrem performing the most popular carols.

In 1983, Sydney began Carols in the Domain, which was set to rival the Melbourne event – each competing for big headline acts. It’s still broadcast each year by Channel Seven, and the event itself draws crowds of up to 80,000.

Norman’s vision of bringing people together to sing carols has persevered, with many fondly remembering gathering around their televisions and watching it with their families each and every year.

In 1952, Norman left 3KZ for 3AW, another Melbourne radio station where he was a pioneer of talkback radio. He retired in 1978 and died in 1985, remembered as the man who “began a national institution” by The Canberra Times.