Carols by Candlelight: Purely an Aussie Tradition

Story by guest blogger Al McCartan. Photo Copyright © Denise Harding.

CHRISTMAS CAROLS. Oh, yes! We still love and sing them all, but we in Australia have gone one step further. We have Carols By Candlelight and have rallied to it for the past 73 years.

I haven’t quite reached 73 years but a good many of those years have seen me attend this wonderful event, both here and overseas. I’ve caroled in towns of a few hundred people right through to cities of millions, but the atmosphere is always the same.

My greatest joy was to act as master of ceremonies for Carols by Candlelight back in the early eighties, at a military complex in my then home city of Canberra. The Army Band and local choir provided the music and song, as did entertainment and media personalities. Apart from announcing the acts I also got to perform my favourite carol, “Little Drummer Boy,” complete with a beautiful drum solo from one of the Army Band percussionists.

So! What is this annual event that attracts forty-thousand or more spectators to the Sydney and Melbourne festivals, and many thousands to the smaller events?

The What:

Carols by Candlelight is an Australian Christmas tradition that originated in the south-eastern colonies of Australia in the 19th century and was popularised in Melbourne in the 1930s.

One of the earliest forms began in Moonta, South Australia where Cornish Miners would get together on Christmas Eve to sing carols. A candle was stuck in the safety helmet and the tradition became so popular it spread throughout the colony, into Victoria and finally Melbourne, where it was revived in the late 1930s.

The Who:

The honour of restarting this tradition goes to late broadcaster, Norman Banks. Banks trained to be an Anglican (Episcopalian) priest but, realising that the Holy Orders were not for him, he switched careers and became a pioneer broadcaster in Melbourne—especially of Australian Football matches.

The When and How:

Christmas Eve, 1937. Australia was still in the grips of the great depression. Banks saw a woman listening to a carols service; she was sitting all alone by the light of a candle. The picture of that woman propelled him into organising a community event to help battle the loneliness experienced by many people, which (as many of us know) can feel even starker at this time of the year.

Naturally Banks came up against the stonewallers, but he overcame a lot of difficulties and staged the first Carols By Candlelight in 1938, attended by over 10,000 people. Music was provided by a 30-voice choir, two soloists and the Melbourne Metropolitan Fire Brigade Band.

Nowadays the tradition has spread worldwide. People gather in a park or gardens to sing carols by candlelight. The evening is augmented by a concert, often involving a well-known personality as the presenter (MC) and local or national performers.

In lots of regions across Australia and New Zealand it has become an “all-the-fun-of-the-fair” day out. Kids and adults alike can enjoy the carnival atmosphere with lots of things to do and eat.

The highlight of the day is after sunset when the carols begin. The littlies are struggling to stay awake, just in case they miss seeing the jolly old gent in the red suit who invariably makes an appearance—and by many creative means, such as parachute or helicopter or even a motorcade with police escort.

Here in my home city of Bathurst, New South Wales, Carols By Candlelight is enhanced by carols being sung in some exotic regional attractions, such as Carols in the Caves (Abercrombie Caves and Jenolan Caves). The surrounds and sounds of the caves give visitors a never-to-be-forgotten thrill.

In two of Australia’s major cities, Sydney and Melbourne, the event is televised and attracts high ratings. Melbourne’s Sidney Myer Music Bowl is the traditional home of Carols By Candlelight; Sydney’s Domain being a close second.

Carols by Candlelight 2010 – Sidney Myer Music Bowl – Melbourne, Australia

The Aussie Touch

In addition to all the traditional Northern stuff— sleighbells and sleigh rides, winter wonderlands—we’ve added some purely Aussie goodies, such as Rolf Harris’ “Six White Boomers” and Col Buchanan’s parody of “Jingle Bells” (see video—and then see glossary underneath for the meanings of the Aussie terminology).

Glossary Of Ozspeak:

Beaut = diminutive for “Beauty, mate!” (in other words, “Terrific!”)
Holden Ute = pick-up truck
Boot = in a car, it’s the trunk; in a Ute, it’s the truck bed
Bush = rural Australia
Esky = cooler (keeps the ice and beer, wines and sodas cold)
Kelpie = a brown Australian sheep dog
Singlet = sleeveless undershirt, normally black or blue
Swaggy = hobo, tramp, itinerant worker.
Thongs = flip-flops (but definitely not underwear!)


Al McCartan doing the morning shift at 2MCE-FM Bathurst

Al McCartan doing the morning shift at 2MCE-FM

AL McCARTAN lives in Bathurst with a redhead (aka Cheryl), one cat (Milo) and about 200 stuffed teddy bears. He has worked with the Department of Defence in Canberra, as a journalist with the Army Newspaper and with the Recruiting Directorate. As a sideline he became an easy listening music DJ and he still practices that medium as morning DJ at 2MCE-FM. Al says, “Reading, writing, fine dining and music are my likes. Oh! I’m nuts about history and I like to slant my writings to the good (and bad) old days.”



  1. What a fun post ! Thanks for sharing the two videos – they were equally delightful, but amazingly different! The Carols by Candlelight sounds like an amazing tradition! My very best to you in the New Year!

    • Al McCartan says:

      Thank you for your comment. Kudos of course, must go to my Buckeye Buddy, Milli for her editorial input. Milliver enhanced my story tenfold.

  2. I love love love Christmas Carols! Thank you for this lovely article, I’d soo love to experience this first-hand 🙂

    • Al McCartan says:

      Thanks Estrella. It is truly a wonderful even, especially in the state capital and bigger cities; you do need to get a spot early. Even in the smaller cetres, such as Bathurst (we’ve got 35,000) it’s a great event.
      If you are resident in the Southern States, where climate is balmier, a good idea would be for the local authorities to arrange such an event.

  3. What a fantastic tradition, Al! So great to learn about this long-standing event, particularly with the Aussie flair. My mother-in-law is Australian and I’m going to point her to this video right away!

    • Al McCartan says:

      Thanks, Lisa
      This is a wonderful even and looked forward to by all of us. Another major event at this season is, Fireworks on the Harbour (Sydney) this brings ’em out in their thousands. A big goodayowyerdoin’ to MIL.

  4. Love it Al, especially Aussie jingle bells!

    Can’t wait to experience Christmas in you’re area of the globe, although I’ll more likely be in *cough* EnZed!

    Happy New Year to you.

    • Al McCartan says:

      G’day JM
      Thenks fer your cumments (that’s kiwispell for thanks for your comments). If you’re in NZ,both Auckland and Wellington have similar events. (psst: summers are cooler there – although Wellington can be a tad damp. You’ll enjoy NZ no matter where.

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