One of the earliest forms of Carols by Candlelight began in the 19th century, when Cornish Miners in Moonta, South Australia, gathered on Christmas Eve to sing carols lit with candles stuck to the brims of their safety hats. The tradition spread through Victoria and Melbourne, until it was popularised in 1938 by Norman Banks, a radio announcer, then with Melbourne radio station 3KZ. Whilst walking home from his night-time radio shift on Christmas Eve in 1937, he passed a window and saw inside an elderly woman sitting up in bed, listening to Away in a Manger being played on the radio and singing along, with her face being lit by candlelight. Wondering how many others spent Christmas alone, he had the idea to gather a large group of people to all sing Christmas carols together by candlelight. The first ever such event was held in Alexandra Gardens the following Christmas, 1938, and was attended by around 10,000 people.
Following World War II, the Carols became so well patronised that the decision was made to move it to the neighbouring park in King's Domain. In 1959, the newly constructed Sidney Myer Music Bowl provided a permanent venue, where they are still held to this day.
Funds raised from donations, ticket, and candle sales are given to Vision Australia (formerly the Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind, RVIB). However, originally, all profits went to the Austin Hospital. During World War II the Red Cross and the Australian Comforts Fund joined the Austin Hospital as co-recipients, and in the immediate post-war era the RVIB received funds, as did the Austin Hospital.
Christmas Eve 2012 marked the 75th anniversary of Carols by Candlelight, a much loved event that has become a tradition in households around Australia.
In 1938 the massed choirs were led by Horace Stevens, who was followed in the position by Max Balderson. The musical director since 2003 has been John Foreman, and from 1984 to 2002 the MD was Geoff Harvey.
In earlier years, Carols by Candlelight had a strong classical music theme, and a noticeable religious influence. The Sun Aria winner for each year was automatically invited to sing at Carols by Candlelight. However, since the 1960s, the program has certainly moved towards popular culture.
The event was originally hosted by its founder Melbourne broadcaster Norman Banks and broadcast over 3KZ. When Banks left the station in 1952, Philip Gibbs became host. During the time that Philip Gibbs was hosting, the program became a radio/TV simulcast on 3KZ and ATV-0. From 1980 it was telecast nationally through the Nine Network. 3AW replaced 3KZ as the radio broadcaster. The event is also broadcast and telecast live to eastern Asia, many Pacific Islands and New Zealand.
Brian Naylor later became the host and, then, for 18 years it was compered by Ray Martin. From 2008, it was presented by Today hosts Lisa Wilkinson and Karl Stefanovic, and since 2013 by Wilkinson and Today Extra co-host David Campbell. Because of this arrangement, the show often features Nine personalities such as Hi-5, and more recently, stars from Nine's hit series, The Voice.
In 1950 a Sydney Carols by Candlelight, based on the Melbourne event, was held in Hyde Park. It was sponsored by 2UW and the Daily Telegraph, in aid of the Rachel Forster Hospital for Women and Children, Redfern. The host was 2UW broadcaster Vernon Lisle. The event is believed to have lasted for about a decade. Since 1983 there has been a similar event in Sydney, namely Carols in the Domain which is simulcast over the Seven Network and Smooth FM in Sydney.
Similar albeit, usually smaller events are now also held all over Australia, usually arranged by churches, community halls, local councils, or other community groups. They are normally held on Christmas Eve or the Sunday or weekend before Christmas.
In North Balwyn, Carols in the Park is held annually. In 2011 it moved to Macleay Park, North Balwyn.
In 2012, 10,000 people attended the celebration in Victoria.
In Geelong, there is Denis Walter's Carols by the Bay held on the first Saturday of December. This is the third largest Carols by Candlelight event in Australia, behind Sydney and Melbourne. It is held at Eastern Beach and is a free event. There is also Carols in the Park in Johnston Park on Christmas Eve.
The City of Monash organises the large annual Carols by Candlelight event in Jells Park, hosted by Pete Smith. It has attracted up to 25,000 people and has been running for over 25 years.
In the City of Yarra a large Carols by Candlelight event has recently been held in the Abbotsford Convent gardens.
In the City of Manningham a large Carols by Candlelight event is held annually in Ruffey Lake Park.
In Werribee, there is the annual City of Wyndham Carols held on the lawns at the historic Werribee Mansion. This event takes place on the second week of December.
In Brisbane the Lord Mayor's Christmas Carols (Carols in the City broadcast by Nine Network) are held normally the first Saturday in December, at Riverstage in the City Botanic Gardens.
In Perth, Carols by Candlelight are held in mid December at the Supreme Court Gardens, while other events are held at Fremantle, Scarborough and Rockingham. In 2012, Suzie Mathers performed during the IGA Carols by Candlelight in Perth
In Adelaide, Carols by Candlelight is held in the weeks before Christmas in Elder Park on the banks of the River Torrens. In 2012, 30, 000 people witnessed the event.
In Newcastle, New South Wales, Carols by Candlelight are held in mid December, both at Speers Point Park on the edge of Lake Macquarie and at King Edward Park in the city near the beach.
In Hobart, due to the urban nature of the city, there are three main carols services. One each in Clarence, Glenorchy and the main ceremony in St David's Park, Hobart itself.
In Canberra the annual Carols by Candlelight is held in Commonwealth Park on Stage 88. 2012 was its 68th occurrence. It is a traditional Carols with community singing of carols led by Woden Valley Youth Choir and one of the local bands such as Canberra City Band. Guest Artists are featured - usually drawn from the local community. The event is normally held on the last Wednesday of the school term, from 7.00 pm. Donations are collected for a local charity with $14,180 raised in 2012 for the Snowy Hydro Southcare Helicopter service. In 2011 and 2012, Auslan interpreters provided interpretation for members of the regional deaf community and that service is expected to continue.