Saturday, December 16, 2017

The History of Disney’s Candlelight Processional

By Keith Mahne

Disney's Candlelight Processional is one of the oldest and most beloved traditions in the over 62-year history of the Disney Parks. Join us today as we take a look back at the history of Disney's Candlelight Processional...

It's hard to think of a more appropriate way to remember the reason of the Christmas season than with the heartwarming Disney tradition of the Candlelight Processional. When Disneyland celebrated its very first Holiday Festival in 1955, a group of 12 Dickens carolers, under the direction of Dr. Charles C. Hirt of the University of Southern California, performed throughout the park, and guest choirs were invited to perform daily in the Main Street, U.S.A. bandstand, which was re-christened the “Christmas Bowl” for the holiday season...

Disneyland Christmas Bowl

Performers entertain Disneyland guests at the Christmas Bowl

On the opening afternoon of the festival, the carolers and a 300-member massed chorus made up of visiting choirs stood together on the Train Station steps and sang Christmas carols accompanied by visiting school bands...

Massed Choirs perform on Main Street Station on December 15, 1956

The following year, under Dr. Hirt’s direction, the carolers and singers from eight visiting choirs also performed as a group on the station steps, this time accompanied by the Disneyland Band. In 1957, the event grew larger as choirs followed the “Christmas Around the World Parade” processing together from Sleeping Beauty Castle into the Plaza where they were to perform. Unfortunately, due to the size of the crowd, the singers were unable to form a circle in the center of the Plaza as planned. Instead, they stood around the Disneyland band and performed in an informal manner.

The first Candlelight Processional at Disneyland, 1958

The choirs and carolers were so well received by Disneyland guests that in 1958, Dr. Hirt suggested to management that performances by a larger massed choir group would be a welcome addition to future holiday events. Therefore, in December 1958, the first evening Candlelight Processional was held with singers from 16 choirs processing down Main Street to the Plaza where they performed a full concert with the Dickens Carolers singing from the Sleeping Beauty Castle balcony above.

Candlelight Procession at Disneyland Park, 1958

In 1960 the event was moved back to Town Square, and actor Dennis Morgan was invited to read portions of the Biblical Christmas story in between the classical hymns. This tradition has continued with very famous celebrities including Cary Grant, John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston, James Earl Jones, Olympia Dukakis and many others donating their eloquence to the program. The “Living Christmas Tree,” featuring the Western High School A’Capella Choir, was also incorporated into the Candlelight Ceremony that year as a centerpiece for the massed choir ceremony.

Western had presented their impressive choral program at the park for the previous two years on a specially constructed “tree” made of risers. It was so well received that they were given this annual place of honor for the next 21 years until their director, Alexander Encheff, retired in 1981. In 1982, the newly formed Disney Employee Choir (volunteer Disney cast members from the Park, Studio and Walt Disney Imagineering) was selected to fill their place, an honor they have held ever since.

The Candlelight Procession and Ceremony at Disneyland, 1994

Over the years, the event has become so popular that it was also introduced at Walt Disney World’s inaugural holiday season in 1971 (starting at the Magic Kingdom, and moving to Epcot in 1994). It has grown from a simple procession of candle-lit carolers into a magnificent classical concert featuring a thousand voice massed choir, “The Living Christmas Tree”, orchestra, fanfare trumpets, bell choir, soloist, sign-language interpreter, guest conductor, and celebrity narrator. But for all of its grandeur, Disney guests particularly love Candlelight for the way it makes them feel each holiday season.

First performance of Candlelight Processional at the Magic Kingdom 1971

Actor Howard Keel, who narrated the ceremony at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World in the 1980s, once said, “I’ve never been a very religious person, but when you stand up there for all of those people with that incredible chorus and orchestra beside you, it’s a wonderfully moving experience. In fact, I was so moved I could hardly speak.”

Before we conclude our look back at the history of Disney’s Candlelight Processional, there are two more things I'd like to show you. The first is this 1978 Disneyland Candlelight Ceremony pamphlet...

And finally, take a listen to the musical score of Epcot's Candlelight Processional now playing in the Christmas Edition of the Disney Avenue Music Player located at the top of the site as track number C6 that you can hear all holiday long...

(For your listening pleasure, be sure to pause the Disney Avenue Music Player located above prior to starting the track below if you are on a desktop computer.)


Keith Michael Mahne is the owner and editor of Disney Avenue and the host of the Disney Avenue Podcast. He has made countless trips to the Walt Disney World resort since his first trip in 1989 at the age of four. Keith has a strong passion and respect for Walt Disney, the parks and resorts, and the men and women who help create them. He started Disney Avenue as a way to inform and entertain readers and to repay all those who make dreams come true every day.

You can find all of Keith's articles here.

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