…the appeal of carols are irresistible. The hardest heart may suddenly melt under the benign influence of a popular carol.1

Norman Banks, founder of Carols by Candlelight

It’s hard to imagine a Christmas without the uniquely Australian tradition of going to the Carols by Candlelight. In an unprecedented year of firsts, 2020 will be the first time since its inception in 1938 that the carols will occur without a live audience singing along with the performers, or the visual spectacle of thousands of candles illuminating the Sidney Myer Music Bowl broadcast onto our TV screens.

The carols were founded by popular 3KZ radio announcer Norman Banks (1905-1985). The Library holds radio scripts, scrapbooks, notebooks, correspondence and photographs relating to his radio career, and involvement with Carols by Candlelight in the Manuscripts collection.2 Preservation work is currently being undertaken to rehouse and list different components of the collection. The Library also holds Banks’ unpublished history of the carols3, and Carols by Candlelight music scores by the composer Ken Muir.4

Carols by Candlelight 1950 programme cover, depicting blonde woman with candle
Carols by Candlelight 1950 programme, from Records of Norman Banks manuscript, 1957 – 1971; YMS 16274
Norman Banks at the 1949 carols, possibly presenting an award
Norman Banks at the 1947 Carols by Candlelight, from Records of Norman Banks manuscript, 1957 – 1971; YMS 16274

The story goes that Norman was walking home down St Kilda Road at the end of his radio shift on Christmas eve in 1937, when he happened to glance into a window and saw an elderly woman sitting up in her bed listening to the radio. The woman was alone, singing along to “Away in a Manger”, her face lit by a solitary candle. Wondering how many other people were alone at Christmas, and seeking to relieve the loneliness and isolation that some experience, he came up with an idea for an event that would gather people together, and raise money for charities at the same time.5

Norman organised the first carols – to be broadcast on 3KZ radio – in Alexandra Gardens a year later,6 with 10,000 people attending the midnight event to sing carols with a choir, two soloists and the Metropolitan Fire Brigade Band.7 By 1949 the carols were celebrated as the ‘first Australian ceremony which has attracted worldwide attention’.8 The event was so well attended that by the 1950s it had moved to Kings Domain, and in 1959 the newly constructed Sidney Myer Music Bowl became its permanent home.

Photograph: What the orchestra saw - looking out from the stage at the 30,000 people who came to the magnificent Opening Night of the Sidney Myer Music Bowl, 1959
What the orchestra saw – looking out from the stage at the 30,000 people who came to the magnificent Opening Night of the Sidney Myer Music Bowl, 1959; H84.182/1/34
Two young women holding a candle and programme
Carols by Candlelight, from Records of Norman Banks manuscript, 1957 – 1971; YMS 16274
Selection of Carols by Candlelight programmes
Carols by Candlelight programmes from Records of Norman Banks manuscript, 1957 – 1971; YMS 16274

Originally profits raised from candle and programme sales were given to the Austin Hospital, and were also distributed to the Red Cross and Australian Comforts Fund during World War II.9 In 1949 the Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind (now Vision Australia), became a beneficiary, and from 1965 all proceeds have gone to support children who are blind or have low vision, and their families.10

Carols have always been a way to bring people from all walks of life, young or old, together at Christmas in common celebration. Even during World War II when the brownout in Melbourne necessitated inside venues, the candles were not extinguished.11 As this year has demonstrated, in times of crisis this sense of community togetherness and goodwill is even more important.

Carols by Candlelight…has won astonishing acceptance because its emphasis is always on those uncomplicated favourites which lend themselves to bathroom tenors; also to lusty performance by people in the mass. Undoubtedly, the candlelit scene encourages the shy and reserved to give forth in a manner that surprises them…people change dramatically in this unique situation. They forget their material problems and personal antipathies and become charged with all that Christmas represents…12

Norman Banks, founder of Carols by Candlelight
American soldiers talking to woman at carols
American wounded soldiers at midnight carols, Alexandra Avenue [Melbourne, Victoria], circa 1942-1945. Argus Newspaper Collection of Photographs; H2000.200/1271
Seven women in white dresses, holding candles
Carols by Candlelight, from Records of Norman Banks manuscript, 1957 – 1971; YMS 16274

Melbourne’s Carols by Candlelight was first broadcast by GTV9 in 1956, and has been broadcast nationally by Channel 9 since 1979.13 Over the years it has become a Christmas eve institution. Australians have grown up watching homegrown talent like John Farnham, Marina Prior, Ray Martin, and Denis Walter perform on stage, not to mention the Wiggles, and of course Santa. In 1983 Sydney began Carols in the Domain. Smaller events are now held all over Australia, usually arranged by churches, municipal councils, or other community groups.

Though there can be no live audience at the carols this year, Norman’s original vision of bringing people together perseveres, as people all over the nation gather around their radios and televisions this Christmas eve, and we look forward to attending carols in Christmases to come.

Four girls sitting on a bench seat with candles
Children at carol service, Dunkeld Town Hall, Vic., 2003. Photograph by Richard Crawley. This item is in copyright. H2008.120/243
Aerial view of the Sidney Myer Music Bowl, the stage, and the crowd at the carols
Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind – Carols by Candlelight, circa 1965-1975. Photograph by Laurie Richards. This item is in copyright. H2016.37/1

You may also like
  1. Norman Banks, The Story of Carols by Candlelight, p.1, RA.2016.45 (unpublished manuscript)
  2. Records of Norman Banks manuscript, 1957 – 1971
  3. Norman Banks, The Story of Carols by Candlelight, RA.2016.45 (unpublished manuscript)
  4. Ken Muir, Papers : manuscript, typescript, printed [1901-1956]
  5. Norman Banks, The Story of Carols by Candlelight, p.6, RA.2016.45 (unpublished manuscript)
  6. BY CANDLELIGHT. (1938, December 26). The Argus, p. 3.
  7. https://radio.visionaustralia.org/carols-by-candlelight-special
  8. World Will Hear Melbourne’s Carols (1949, December 24). The Argus, p. 25.
  9. https://radio.visionaustralia.org/carols-by-candlelight-special
  10. Christine M. Childs, “Carols by Candlelight”, eMelbourne
  11. https://radio.visionaustralia.org/carols-by-candlelight-special. Also see NEWS IN BRIEF (1941, December 18). The Age, p. 6.
  12. Norman Banks, The Story of Carols by Candlelight, p.5, RA.2016.45 (unpublished manuscript)
  13. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carols_by_Candlelight

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