Carols by Candlelight defines the Aussie Christmas on the couch

Carols by Candlelight is a fixture of the Australian festive season. AAP Image/Alan Porritt

The strange northern hemisphere tradition of the television “Christmas Special” is somewhat alien to us on this end of the world. No Mr Bean with a turkey on his head or fantastically awkward Christmas Office special double episode for us. Maybe it’s because it’s too hot to be inside watching telly.

One of our most significant broadcast traditions, Carols by Candlelight and associated events, has developed across media and with interesting commercial crossovers. Collective Christmas carol singing is of course not unique to Australia, but the broadcasting of the tradition is something that marks our festive season.

There’s no equivalent on Australian TV to the Mr Bean Christmas special.

First it was carols by Bakelite

Carols by Candlelight as a broadcast event predates television, starting as a radio broadcast tradition out of Melbourne in the late 1930s.

As media historian Bridget Griffen-Foley explains, the idea for the event came from a 1938 Summer evening walk along St Kilda Road in Melbourne, as star 3KZ announcer Norman Banks became inspired by the vision of “an open window [with] an old lady listening by candlelight to her radio playing Away in a Manger”.

Banks used the broadcast event as a way to draw otherwise isolated community members together for the festive season, as well as to raise funds for hospitals and other charities. Griffen-Foley confirms the importance of the institution as it grew, but also notes that “during the war other radio stations decided to exploit the goodwill bonanza represented by the carols”.

Carols by Candlelight on television has continued that community-meets-charity-meets-commercial opportunity ethos of wartime Melbourne radio. The two major metropolitan commercial broadcasters, Channel 9 and 7, feature events from Melbourne and Sydney respectively each year.

Both currently support major charities while also featuring major corporate sponsors – and sometimes less than subtle promos for the stations themselves.

Channel 9’s Carols from the Sidney Myer Music Bowl

The Melbourne event screened on Channel 9 has been on air since 1969, and over its history has hosted a huge number of artists and performance types. The current event ties itself to Banks’ original radio broadcast expressly as part the “history of carols” section of its website.

And the development of carols from a community event to a concert event is tracked here too, as the organisers recall the 1942 event where “Gladys Moncrieff, Australia’s ‘Queen of Song’ became the first celebrity singer to perform on the night”. That same year a new broadcast technology was being showcased with a “state-of-the-art radio hook-up” from London and New York.

The spreading of festive cheer, and the promotion of new broadcast and commercial opportunities has continued over time. As this 1980s channel advertisement shows, the event has continued to be used by the broadcaster as an evolving cross promotion opportunity. While the words and melody of Silent Night might be the same at any number of events spread across the season, only on Channel 9’s broadcast could it be experienced in “Stereovision”:

An 80s era advertisement for Melbourne’s Carols by Candlelight.

Channel 7’s Carols in the Domain

Not to be outdone by another city or another network, Channel 7’s Carols in the Domain has been on air since the early 1980s. Staged in Sydney’s Domain the weekend before Christmas, it gets one up on the competition in terms of timing – and also avoids going head to head with its southern rival.

While the live audience for Carols in the Domain is likely only made up of Sydneysiders and tourists already in town, the promotion for the event attempts to engage a wider community. Currently sponsored by Woolworths, this year is described on its website as “Australia’s largest free Christmas concert”. The aim is encourage those at home to consider themselves part of a festive, but also national, sense of community.

The crossover between community, commercial entity and concert event is part of strange appeal of televised Carols events. This 1999 clip of Lisa McCune, during her stint as a Blue Heelers star, for Channel 7 also gave her a chance to plug the stage version of The Sound of Music she was appearing in at the time. What does that show have to do with Christmas? Nothing. But the advertising of its run in Sydney didn’t hurt.

Lisa McCune’s star turn in Carols by Candlelight.

Last year the Grease segment also took a good few minutes before it acknowledged Christmas at all, save for the odd inclusion of the words “elves” and “Santa” in the chorus. A commercial scrooge might just say this was an excuse to show off the stage play and some classic tunes, with the carols an opportunity to reach a rather large audience.

The stars of Grease the Musical didn’t make much effort to give their act a festive twist.

The importance of collective viewing and engagement

At a time when audiences can watch anytime, anywhere, broadcast events like Carols by Candlelight are increasingly rare opportunities for the industry. Timed to match the season, these events work the same way as big sports matches do – viewers will change their plans in order to watch as it goes to air.

The Carols certainly do well for their broadcasters in terms of ratings, with these events making appearances in Screen Australia’s collected Top 20 programs shown on Australian television over recent years.

The development of community via such broadcasts, particularly ones that do involve the promotion of charitable giving, is complex. These events are cheesy but well meaning – like most mainstream festive events.

An unexpected upside for scrooges who perhaps feel drawn in despite themselves is the cringeworthy moments these events can provide. Take, for example, this 2006 clip of Hugh Jackman at the Sydney event – complete with awkward introductions.

Hugh Jackman’s festive treats.

Perhaps this was the training that prepared him for other big television events such as the Oscars. A slightly better dressed cast, bigger budget and audience, but still guilty pleasure viewing.