Carols by Candlelight

Carols by Candlelight: A True Australian Tradition

20 December 2023

5.1 MINS

The tradition of Carols by Candlelight in Australia finds its roots intertwined with the arrival of the Cornish Methodist miners in the mid-1800s, particularly in places like Moonta, South Australia. These miners brought with them a rich heritage of faith, including the cherished tradition of singing carols during the Christmas season.

Faith was important to these miners, particularly as they had experienced a Christian Revival, which is recorded in the history books as the 1875 Moonta Revival. In the late 1800s, over 98% of Australians identified as believers in Christ. The Moonta miners were even more passionate about their faith: you could say these miners were mining for a heart of gold.

This 1894 picture of the Moonta miners with their candlesticks stuck on their mining hats says it all.

Moonta Miners Getting Ready to Sing at Carols by Candlelight Circa 1894

The miners celebrated their faith by singing Christmas carols in the open air, often accompanied by the warm flicker of candles. With four or more children per family, every father had a lot of extra voices to add to his family choir. This tradition gradually spread beyond the mining communities, captivating the hearts of Australians across different regions.

It has to be said that the warm Australian climate is uniquely suited to outdoor Christmas celebrations. Such events would be impossible in the bitter winters of the northern hemisphere. Our first featured carol below has Cornish origins, and was no doubt sung by the Moonta miners in that first Aussie Carols by Candlelight on Christmas Eve in the late 1800s.

Carols by Candlelight, a gathering where communities come together to sing Christmas carols by the soft glow of candlelight, developed from these humble beginnings into a rich and beloved Australian tradition. From little things, big things grow!

Children were always at the centre of these celebrations, since Christmas is the birthday celebration of the Christ Child. If there is one thing children understand, it’s birthdays. The birthday of Jesus is no exception.

As the years passed, Carols by Candlelight services grew into larger community events. In 1938, Melbourne’s iconic Sidney Myer Music Bowl hosted the first organised Carols by Candlelight event with 10,000 in attendance. Norman Banks, a radio announcer, conceived the idea of a public event that would be broadcast live. This marked a significant turning point, as it brought the tradition to a broader audience and solidified its place in Australian culture.

Over time, Carols by Candlelight events became more elaborate, attracting larger crowds and incorporating performances by renowned artists and choirs. The event in Melbourne, in particular, gained national attention, becoming a televised spectacle that families across Australia looked forward to each year. Featured below is another song from the Melbourne Carols event.

One of the significant milestones in the history of Carols by Candlelight was the involvement of various charitable organisations. Interestingly, 23 of the top 25 Australian Charities have Christian roots. The events became a platform to raise funds for noble causes, with proceeds often supporting children in need during the festive season. The combination of music, community spirit and charitable endeavours further cemented the tradition’s significance in Australian society.

As technology advanced, Carols by Candlelight adapted to modern mediums. Television broadcasts and online streaming allowed people from all corners of the country to participate in the joyous celebrations. Families gathered around their television sets or tuned in via livestream to sing along with their favourite carols, fostering a sense of togetherness, even from a distance.

In recent years, Carols by Candlelight events have continued to change, incorporating diverse musical performances, celebrity appearances, and innovative staging techniques. Yet, at its core, the tradition remains a heartfelt communal gathering where people join in song, illuminated by the soft glow of candlelight or, more commonly now, due to safety concerns, battery-operated candles.

I estimate that across Australia, there are hundreds if not thousands of local and large Carols by Candlelight events in the lead-up to Christmas each year. In my own region of the Illawarra, which has a population of 312,000, there are 22 different Christmas Carols events both indoors and outdoors celebrating our “dear Saviour’s birth”, as O Holy Night puts it. On a national basis, extrapolating, that would mean almost 2,000 separate events with untold millions in attendance. Who says God is dead?

The Figtree Community Carols, which I attended last week, is a fantastic grassroots community event. It is run by the local Figtree Anglican Church and is one of the largest Carols events in our region. It has been going for 27 years and this year had over 5,000 people in attendance, mostly young families with children.

The event was run by 175 passionate volunteers, and $2,200 was raised for the Rural Firefighting Service. It is not just the money but the social capital that is created. It is impossible to put a price on faith, hope and love. See the short Figtree Carols Synopsis video below set to a homegrown carol.

Despite the changes and adaptations, the essence of Carols by Candlelight endures — fostering unity, spreading joy, and rekindling the love that Christ endears to each of us across Australia. The tradition continues to thrive in various forms, whether in large-scale events in major cities, or intimate gatherings in local communities, ensuring that the tradition initiated by the Christian Cornish miners in the 19th century remains a cherished part of our Australian heritage.

Many Australians have no idea that the history of Carols by Candlelight in Australia can be traced back to the influence of Cornish miners and their passion to love Christ through song. From humble beginnings in mining towns like Moonta, the tradition grew into a national phenomenon, uniting communities and spreading the joy of the birth of Jesus across the country.

Now, other nations around the world that are favoured with a warm climate are copying this Australian tradition in ever-increasing numbers. Truth be told, if they are copying the beloved Australian tradition of Carols by Candlelight, they should also copy the heart behind the tradition: the heartfelt faith of the Methodist miners from Moonta.

The best way to understand the heart of the miners is to grasp what motivated the co-founder of Methodism, Charles Wesley, the brother of John Wesley. One of the most popular Christmas carols of all time is Charles Wesley’s Hark The Herald Angels Sing, written in 1739. This carol, more than any other, defines and explains the meaning behind this beloved Australian tradition and the heart of the Moonta miners. It is almost certainly one of the carols they would have been singing in the late 1800s.

Watch the full performance below from the Myer Music Bowl Carols by Candlelight, which begins as follows:

Hark! The herald angels sing,
Glory to the newborn King;
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!
Joyful, all ye nations rise,
Join the triumph of the skies;
With angelic host proclaim,
Christ is born in Bethlehem!

Hark! the herald angels sing,
Glory to the newborn King!


Gather your family together this Christmas and tell them the story of the Moonta miners’ love for Jesus. Tell them how they started Carols by Candlelight by using their mining candles to see and sing the words to the carols on Christmas Eve. Copy the Moonta miners and gather with others to sing carols, too!

Yours for New Family Traditions,
Warwick Marsh

PS: My friend Kurt Mahlburg and I have recently completed a new book about the reason for the season. The book is called “Jesus: The Centre of It All.” We couldn’t have Christmas without Jesus, and yet Jesus is much bigger than Christmas. This book is about the author of Christmas, but for all year round.  Watch the launch video for the book here. Order your own copy here.


Originally published at Dads4Kids. Photo by Blue Ox Studio.

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  1. Kim Beazley 20 December 2023 at 10:29 am - Reply

    Great article! I thoroughly enjoy watching the Melbourne “Carols by Candlelight” every year, though I have to confess to recording it so that I can watch it on Christmas morning and fast forward through ads and those songs which don’t reflect the “reason for the season”. The fact that Christmas Day is also my own birthday makes watching this on the actual morning all the more moving for me.

    Also, it’s worth noting that a number of regulars at the Melbourne event are so open about their own Christian faith.

    Fantastic information, too, about the origins with the Cornish miners in South Australia.

  2. Countess Antonia Maria Violetta Scrivanich 20 December 2023 at 10:30 am - Reply

    Loved the article. Learnt something about my childrens’ Moonta Mines ancestors that I never knew—their love of God and the First Australian “Carols by Candlelight” . Perhaps Richard Lord is one of the men in the picture ? He was a well-known and loved identity who had 10 children ( who married into the Trembath, the Polkinghorne, Richardson, etc families ) , so, my children must be related to “half of South Australia ” ! Unfortunately, no one has kept in touch. Richard came from the Isle of Man, went to California’s Gold Rush, then arrived in Victoria in 1851 aboard “The Screamer “– still chasing gold , before becoming a copper miner working for the Moonta Mines. Many of the Lord Family are buried in the old, historic cemetery. Richard died aged 90. I will pass this article onto my children. I showed them Moonta when they were small . A sincereThank You !

  3. Nathaniel Marsh 20 December 2023 at 11:23 am - Reply

    Fantastic article – great work!

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