A beloved Australian tradition, Vision Australia’s Carols by Candlelight has a remarkable history of supporting children who are blind or have low vision and this year marks the 80th anniversary for the iconic Christmas celebration.
Eighty years ago, the vision of one man, Norman Banks MBE, created what has become Australia’s most iconic Christmas event, Carols by Candlelight. Since then Carols by Candlelight has brought joy to millions of Australians celebrating Christmas.
Banks, a veteran of radio, was walking home on Christmas Eve in 1937, when he noticed an elderly woman sitting up in bed by her window, her face lit only by a candle. She had a radio beside her and was singing along to the Christmas carol, ‘Away in a Manger’. It was at this moment that Banks was inspired to create a gathering of people to sing Carols by Candlelight.
It was not easy to gain general support for the idea, but thanks to the gracious personal interest of the Lord Mayor at the time, Cr. A.W. Coles, Norman Banks gained the approval of the City Council and set to work and organised the whole program.
And so, in 1938, ten thousand people gathered at midnight in the Alexandra Gardens to sing carols with a 30-strong choir, two soloists and the Metropolitan Fire Brigade Band. The unusual candlelight setting, and the beauty of the carols, instantly won the affection of the large assembly. A new Christmas tradition was born.
The candles lit in 1938 have burned through prosperous and troubled times.
Even with Australia in the grip of the Second World War, the candles continued to burn on Christmas Eve. Then came the Brown Out year when, although the Festival was scheduled to be presented at Alexandra Gardens, war-time restrictions and the threat of a Japanese invasion necessitated a transfer to the Baptist Church.
Australia’s Queen of Song, Gladys Moncrieff, appeared on the program in 1942, and throughout the early years, many famous artists have been associated with Carols by Candlelight, including Madame Florence Austral, Gilda Grauen and other prominent Victorian artists including Robert Simmons, Mary Miller, Robert Payne, William Laird and John Lanigan. It was in 1942 that an international radio hook-up was arranged, and during the evening, messages were relayed to the audience from the Lord Mayors of London and New York.
From 1949, RVIB became the main beneficiary with the Austin Hospital. In the first year, it received 7,543 pounds earmarked for the new nursery and school on Burwood Road. In 1958, the venue was changed from Alexandra Gardens to the new Sidney Myer Music Bowl where over 100,000 people attended. Since 1965 all proceeds have gone to Vision Australia.
In 1970, Vision Australia's Carols by Candlelight was televised for the first time on Channel Ten. Channel 9 took over in 1979 and has continued to be a broadcast partner ever since.
And so, through the years, the festival has grown in Melbourne and captured the imagination of audiences throughout the world. It has been emulated in Australian cities and is now an annual feature in many countries. Over the years the number of famous guests has also increased with appearances by favourites such as Denis Walter, Marina Prior, Silvie Paladino, David Hobson, John Farnham, Debra Byrne, Delta Goodrem, James Morrison, Guy Sebastian, Hi5 and this years’ Ambassador, Anthony Callea.
Vision Australia’s Carols by Candlelight is not just about a wonderful show, it is also about raising money to support services for children who are blind or have low vision. Our mission for the 80th Carols by Candlelight is to make the lives of children that are blind or have low vision four times brighter! So, on December 24th, every dollar that you donate will have four times the impact thanks to the matching donations of the Vision Australia Community.
The 80th Vision Australia’s Carols by Candlelight is presented by Priceline Pharmacy.