The History of the Candlelight Ceremony at Disneyland

The History of the Candlelight Ceremony at Disneyland

Talk to the thousands in attendance of the Candlelight Ceremony at Disneyland on the first weekend of December and many will say that Candlelight is the start of their Christmas season. Every year as the DAPs Magic team waits for this special event similar sentiments are heard. For many also, the Candlelight Ceremony is a yearly tradition that they make the trek to Disneyland for. For some this is a tradition that goes back a few years, for others the tradition spans decades. The Candlelight Ceremony at Disneyland is a Disney tradition that dates reaches six decades. A tradition started by Walt Disney himself, it now continues on decades later with a message of love and hope.

Origins of the Candlelight Ceremony at Disneyland

The origins of the Candlelight Ceremony dates back to the very first Christmas at Disneyland. Under the direction of Dr. Charles C. Hirt, 12 Dickens carolers sang the music of the season to Disney guests. Walt Disney was friends with Dr. Hirt of the University of Southern California who recounted, “I trained the Disneyland carolers,” in a 1993 interview. “This included teaching the singers how to respond to people in the Park. For example, if a little girl walked up to one of the singers, that caroler would sing directly to that child.” For the opening afternoon of this holiday tradition, the Dickens Carolers and a 300-member massed chorus made up of visiting choirs stood together on the Main Street Train Station steps and sang Christmas carols accompanied by visiting school bands. 

The Dickens carolers would perform around the park and special guest choirs were invited to perform daily at the Main Street,. USA bandstand. For the second season, the bandstand was renamed the “Christmas Bowl.” By the time this happened, the bandstand was re-located in Magnolia Park area of Adventureland.

1956 also brought the first mass choir to Disneyland. Hirt directed the choir on the steps of the Main Street, USA Station. The choir was accompanied by the Disneyland Band.  The following year, this became the Christmas Around the World Parade. The parade began at Sleeping Beauty Castle and choirs processed into the plaza where they were supposed to circle up for the performance. However, due to crowd size this ended up not being practical and the choir performed with the Disneyland Band as they fit instead. The Christmas Around the World Parade would continue through 1964 and then return in 1980-1984. It featured both local choral groups and ethnic costumes from around the world.

The popularity of the performance in the plaza led to Dr. Hirt suggesting to Disney management that a larger choral performance would be well received by Disney guests. This led to the first Candlelight in December of 1958. It took place in the evening and was comprised of 16 choirs and the Dickens singers. The ceremony began with a procession down Main Street, USA to the plaza where the ceremony was performed with Dickens carolers up on a balcony on Sleeping Beauty Castle.

Hirt remembered, “When we first did the ceremony in 1958, the carolers all gathered around the flagpole in Town Square. It was a beautiful ceremony, but we made one mistake: it was difficult for people to see since the singers were all in a circle with me in the center conducting. So the next year, bleachers were constructed adjacent to the Train Station so that the carolers were facing the spectators on Main Street.

Candlelight – The Building of a Tradition

After the success of Candlelight the first year and the lessons learned from it, bleachers were built next to the Main Street, USA Station so that it would be easier for people to watch the performance. In 1959, these bleachers were filled with 2,574 singers making it the largest choir to perform in the Candlelight Ceremony at Disneyland. The Candlelight Ceremony became closer to what is known and loved today in 1960 when a stage was built on the front of the Main Street, USA Station. With this came the “living Christmas tree.” It originally was made up of the Western High School A’Capella Choir. This choir continued to make up the “living Christmas tree” until 1981 when its conductor retired. The following year, the Disney Employee Choir filled the tree. They have continued to do so ever since.

Around this time the celebrity narrators were added to the program to read portions of the Christmas story between the beloved hymns. The first narrator for the Candlelight Ceremony was Dennis Morgan. He would continue to do this yearly until 1964. In 1965 Dick Van Dyke narrated as part of the promotion for Mary Poppins. He would return decades later to narrate again in 2005 and again in 2012.  Other celebrities joined this tradition that included Gregory Peck, Cary Grant, Charlston Heston, Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, and even James Earl Jones to name a few. “Cary Grant and Rock Hudson both wanted to narrate the ceremony again and again and they did it for free!” Hirt remembered.

Dr. Charles C. Hirt would continue to lead the Candlelight Ceremony for two nights every December for the next 25 years. For the most part, two nights of performances have continued to be the tradition. This was changed for one year in 2012 when the Candlelight Ceremony was presented December 1st through the 20th. The following year it returned to the tradition of being presented for two nights. Dr. Hirt also helped continue this tradition at the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida when the Magic Kingdom opened in 1971. In 1993 the ceremony was moved to Epcot where it remains to this day.

The Candlelight Ceremony

Through the years, the Candlelight Ceremony has been polished and refined. However, the main program progression remains much the same. It tells the story of the first Christmas through music and narration by a narrator, mass choir, handbells, soloists, and orchestra.

During the 1970s, the second Disneyland Band director Jim Christensen worked to insure there would be consistency in the actual programming and musical arrangement for the Candlelight Ceremony on both coasts. Christensen had worked both with the University of Wisconsin Marching Band and also in television. He utilized these talents to polish the ceremony. “What we’ve done is to add a more professional look to it,” Christensen is quoted as saying in 1978.

Because of the efforts of people like Dr. Hirt and Christensen, the Candlelight Ceremony continues to tell the story of the original Christmas and touch the hearts of thousands each year. Much of the music and narration remains the same from year to year.  On occasion the narration is changed or a song is added. In recent years the Candlelight Carol was removed in favor of Away in a Manger in 2015. In 2014 the poem One Solitary Life was also removed from the ceremony. Many in attendance will not recognize any difference. Those with a sharp memory and good earl will notice subtle variances. In 2021, the Candlelight Carol replaced Away in a Manger. This came as Candlelight only included adults as part of the safety protocols of Disneyland after the pandemic. 

Here is a list of music currently included in the Candlelight Ceremony:

Candlelight Processional Songs (2021):

  1. Deck the Halls
  2. O Little Town of Bethlehem
  3. O Come All Ye Faithful
  4. O Come, O Come Emmanuel
  5. God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
  6. Here We Come A Caroling
  7. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

Candlelight Ceremony Songs (2021):

  1. Sing Praise to Him, Our Lord
  2. The First Noel
  3. Candlelight Carol
  4. He is Born
  5. Angels We Have Heard on High
  6. What Child is This
  7. We Three Kings
  8. Sing Noel
  9. Silent Night
  10. Joy to the World
  11. Hallelujah Chorus

The Candlelight Ceremony is currently conducted by Nancy Sulahian. She has been directing the Candlelight Ceremony for several years now.

Candlelight Narrators

Chris Hemsworth Narrating Disneyland's Candlelight Processional and CeremonyEvery year at Disneyland as the Christmas season nears, Disney fans begin speculating about who will be the celebrity narrator for the Candlelight Ceremony. Some years, the narrator(s) has been announced ahead of time. Often, the narrator is not announced. Chris Hemsworth is a prime example of the narrator being kept a secret. Until the mic check before the first Candlelight Ceremony performance for 2017, the identity of the narrator was unknown. For many in attendance on that Saturday afternoon the speculation was that Star Wars actor Mark Hamill would be the narrator. This was soon left behind as people cheered for Hemsworth as he climbed the stairs of the podium for the mic check. Hemsworth is just one of many incredible narrators through the years. Here is a list of all of the Candlelight Ceremony narrators at Disneyland:

  • Dennis Morgan (1961-1964)
  • Dick Van Dyke(1965) (Walt’s last Candlelight ceremony)
  • Dennis Morgan (1966)
  • Gregory Peck & Dean Jones (1967)
  • Henry Fonda & Rock Hudson(1968)
  • Gary Grant (1969)
  • Charlton Heston  & Dean Jones (1970)
  • John Wayne (1971)
  • Rock Hudson (1972)
  • Cary Grant (1973-1974)
  • Jimmy Stewart (1975)
  • Rock Hudson (1976)
  • Buddy Ebsen & Ed Asner(1977)
  • Cary Grant (1978)
  • Elliot Gould & Joseph Cotton (1979)
  • Michael Landon (1980)
  • Ed Asner & Jason Robards(1981)
  • Pat and Shirley Boone (1982)
  • Darren McGavin (1983)
  • Joseph Campanella (1984)
  • Kevin Dobson (1985)
  • Craig T. Nelson & Elliot Gould (1986)
  • Howard Keel (1987):
  • Joseph Campanella (1988)
  • John Forsythe (1989)
  • James Earl Jones (1990)
  • Robert Urich (1991)
  • George Kennedy (1992)
  • Michael York (1993)
  • Peter Graves (1994)
  • David Ogden Stiers (1995)
  • Mary Hart (1996)
  • Joseph Campanella (1997)
  • Richard Crenna & Edward James Olmos (1998)
  • Olympia Dukakis (1999)
  • John Tesh & Barry Bostwick (2000)
  • David Ogden Stiers (2001)
  • Mickey Rooney & Stephen Collins (2002)
  • Louis Gossett, Jr. & Marie Osmond (2003)
  • Marie Osmond (2004)
  • Dick Van Dyke (2005)
  • Andy Garcia & Hector Elizondo (2006)
  • Jane Seymour (2007)
  • John Stamos (2008)
  • Jon Voight (2009)
  • Tom Skerritt (2010)
  • Gary Sinise (2011):
  • Dec. 1-2, 2012: Dennis Haysbert
  • Dec. 3-5, 2012: Kurt Russell
  • Dec. 6-8, 2012: Edward James Olmos
  • Dec. 9-11, 2012: Lou Diamond Phillips
  • Dec. 12-13, 2012: Dick Van Dyke
  • Dec. 14, 2012: Dennis Haysbert
  • Dec. 15-16, 2012: Patricia Heaton
  • Dec. 17-19, 2012: Molly Ringwald
  • Dec. 20, 2012: John Stamos
  • Kurt Russell & Blair Underwood (2013)
  • Beau Bridges (2014)
  • Geena Davis & Lana Parilla (2015)
  • Gennifer Goodwin (2016)
  • Chris Hemsworth (2017)
  • Chris Pratt (2018)
  • Lin-Manuel Miranda (2019)
  • Sterling K. Brown (2021)

Continuing Legacy of the Candlelight Ceremony

The Candlelight Ceremony at the Disneyland Resort continues a legacy that began with the beginning of Disneyland itself. It continues to help many kick off their Christmas celebration. The ceremony shares a beautiful message of love and hope that came through the birth of the baby in the manger. People of all backgrounds and beliefs come together for two nights of celebrating the gift of love. It’s not just about the story being told but about the way it is told. The combination of this creates a magical feeling that truly incapsulates that Christmas magic and brings people together. And really, isn’t that what Christmas is supposed to be about?

The Candlelight Ceremony has many different meanings and have brought many different memories to different people throughout the years. Let us know your favorite memories of the Candlelight Ceremony in the comments below. Share also your favorite narrator in the comments below. Finally, who would you like to see narrate the Candlelight Ceremony at Disneyland? Merry Christmas everyone!

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21 Responses

  1. For many years this was a special treat for employees to attend. It was held in the Fantasyland theater. In 1998 my husband and I spent the first few nights of our honeymoon in the penthouse of the Disneyland Hotel and were so excited to attend Candlelight. It was magical. My sister was an employee and Disney ambassador. I also attended in the mid 80’s as an employee myself, also in the theater. My dad and another sister also worked at Disneyland for several years. We now live in Colorado, so rarely get to see it. Hope to try to get a glimpse for our 20th anniversary! Bummed that there doesn’t seem to be any possibility of tickets.

  2. I performed in Candlelight in 1990, 1992, and 1996. James Earl Jones was an amazing narrator! I would love to see Tom Hanks narrate. Candlelight is the ultimate Christmas experience for me. I am sad that One Solitary Life has been removed from the program.

    1. I’m completely with you on Tom Hanks! That’s one of my top choices for a future narrator! I also agree with you on One Solitary Life, I really miss it. I’m sure hearing James Earl Jones narrate was incredible! Merry Christmas!

  3. Even now, at 71, I can still remember the pure joy and excitement of walking down Main Street in Disneyland as a child of 10, carrying my little pen light “candle” and singing with what seemed like at least hundreds, if not thousands, of others. I adored Charles Hirt, and his talented wife, Lucy. I wish every child could feel what I felt on those occasions back in the 1950’s, and experience the life changing power of such events. Even though Dr. Hirt would not remember me, his influence directed my life at key moments. I went on to major in voice in college because of an encouraging word from him, did my share of choral directing, too. At 50, I entered the world of opera and performed professionally for 15 years….. so much started there on the pavement at Disneyland……i have so much gratitude in my heart.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your memories! How awesome! What a fun comment to read on a rainy Saturday morning. What an incredible part of an incredible legacy! – Mr. DAPs

      1. My mom performed the “living christmas tree” with director Mr enchiff in 1963 on the main train station. Her school was Western High School. We finally found an artical talking about it. We would love to find a video or tape of it.she still has her vynal record of her performance of it.

  4. In the late 70’s 1977, 1978 or 1979 I worked crowd control for the candlelight procession at Disneyland. I saw Ross Martin from the TV show The Wild Wild West narrate that night. Why is his name absent from your narrator list? Did he have to fill in for someone?

    1. Hi Roberto, thank you for reaching out on this! When researching, I saw that he was in 1978 from one source and then several other sources said Cary Grant was that year. I don’t suppose you remember if they each had one night or if Ross Martin did both? Thank you again!

  5. 1985 – Orange High School Concert Choir/Chamber Singers led by Mr. Michael Short was picked to be the human Christmas Tree and I was part of it. What a night!

  6. I’ve been doing the show since 2007. Nancy Sulahian has been the conductor at least since that year, 99% sure that wasn’t close to her first year. The events coordinator has been doing the show for over 30 years. 2020 was the only year we didn’t do a show. It was amazing to bring it back this year!

  7. One of my fav memories was when Marie Osmond (who was filling in for Lou Gossett Jr.) fighting tears and her emotions when reading the poem “One Solitary Life” and the especially reading lines “He was turned over to his enemies..And went through the mockery of a trial..He was nailed to a cross between two thieves…While dying, his executioners gambled for his clothing…The only property he had on earth.”

  8. I sang in the Candlight Processional from 1975-1978. On the night our High School (Carlsbad High, Carlsbad CA) Ross Martin 2as the narrator. Jimmy Stewart held my fondness. I heard him say he was hungry when we took a break. I offered him my orange. He thanked me and are it.
    Such wonderful memories and an incredible experience. I’m 61 now, living in WA.
    THANK YOU DISNEYLAND!

  9. I was a Disneyland cast member and watched several of these programs. After leaving the park in 1979, got to be in the program twice. One was, I think, in 1985 when it got rained out. As we were in the back lot area all day rehearsing under cover, we did the entire program for ourselves that evening. Would like to see One Solitary Life return.

  10. I had the privilege of directing the Royal Stewart Singers and Concert Choirs of Glendora High School for 21 years. For over 10 of those years, from 1967-1980, we were one the choirs of the Candlelight Procession of Disneyland. The Procession, plus the experience of singing under Dr Charles Hirt. was always one of the standout highlights of our singing year, It was always a thrill for us to discover who had been selected to narrate each year’s program. We remember Cary Grant, Ed Asner, Jimmy Stewart, and many others as truly wonderful in their reading and interpretation of the scriptures. Even today, when I see kids I taught over 50 years ago, they still remember the excitement and honor they had as members of the Candlelight Procession. As a matter of fact they still remark on what a thrill it was for them to see me, their director, singing with the Dickens Carolers, one season long ago. Thank you for sharing these precious thoughts with me today. They brought back so many, many pleasant memories to this old man

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