An Evening of Candlelight

“Christmas waves a magic wand over this world, and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful.” ―Norman Vincent Peale

Last weekend, I had the privilege of attending the first evening of Disneyland’s Candlelight Ceremony and Processional that is hosted every Christmas season.

I’ve known about this Disneyland tradition since I started working for the company and have made my way down a packed Main Street during past shows but this was the first time I got to sit and appreciate the show in its’ entirety.

The only words that feels fitting to describe the show is gorgeous and peaceful. Visually, it is a spectacle and the feeling of peace and contentment I felt during the show is one that I have been carrying with me for the holiday season.  Afterwards, I was inspired to find out more about the history of the show and wanted to share my personal experience with you.

In a 2015 article published online by D23, the official Disney fan club, Walt Disney Archives director Becky Cline shared the history of the Candlelight:

When Disneyland celebrated its 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 season.

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

While Walt Disney World’s version of Candlelight has grown to a month-and-a-half of shows, Disneyland’s version remains an intimate evening delight. This year’s show marks the 60th anniversary of this wonderful tradition!

Each year, the Candlelight Ceremony usually takes place on the first weekend of December, with two shows each night and a surprise celebrity narrator. There is standing room on Main Street but to get a good view, you basically have to camp out all day. Seats are reserved for invited guests and VIPS (while waiting in line, I saw a lot of Club 33 members) so I was incredibly honored when my friend Janina invited me to come to the 7:45 showing with her.

We arrived about a hour early, got inside the gates, realized we would be standing around for an hour before being seated, then decided to hop over to Disney’s California Adventure for a few bites to eat before coming back.

When we made our way back to Disneyland, we entered the park through the gates on far right, making sure to show our tickets. There was a roped off area right in front of the Mickey made out of flowers just inside the park gates. Again, we showed our tickets and stood in the line for the purple section.

We chatted a bit with other people in line. A woman behind us knew who the guest speaker was from social media postings from the earlier showing. While I wanted to be surprised, Janina wanted to know so she could tell her boys who she was seeing tonight. Before long, we were led to our seats.

Before we knew it, the ceremony began as the orchestra started to play a melody of Christmas songs.

Shortly after, the choir began making their way to the front of the train station and eventually created the “Living Christmas Tree”.

After the choir was assembled and their opening songs were finished, Bill Rogers (also known as “the voice of Disneyland” or the voice you hear for all Disneyland announcements) introduced the night’s guest speaker: Chris Pratt.

Here’s a blurry image of Star-Lord

The rest of Candlelight proceeds as follows: the telling of the story of the first Christmas through scripture passages accompanied by traditional Christmas songs sung by the assembled choirs and live orchestra. Instead of breaking it down bit by bit, I thought I would share some snippets of video I took.

As you might be able to see in the video, I had a pretty good view of the stage and the sign-language interpreter. Honestly, while I was listening intently to Chris Pratt’s narration (and he does have a wondrous voice for narration) and the choir singing, I was visually captivated by the sign-language interpreter. Even when no one was singing or talking, she was interpreting the music.

The Candlelight Ceremony and Processional was magical. If you ever get the chance to experience it in person, I would recommend it as it is a joyous way to kick off the holiday season. If you can’t make it in person, this year Walt Disney World has made their live stream on December 4th available to watch online.

Comment below if you have ever had the chance to see this lovely tradition live.

Happy Adventuring!

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