The History of Two Disney Christmas Traditions

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

Christmas is gone and past but like Scrooge I am trying to keep the spirit of Christmas in my heart all year long. In fact, I was working on a series of columns to run this summer to be called “Christmas in July.” However, when I started to work on this first one, I got too excited about the information I found to keep it for another couple of months.

I love visiting the Disney theme parks during the Christmas holidays. Only a grinch with a small heart wouldn’t be moved by the decorations, parades, shows, and more that truly capture the spirit of the season.

Growing up in Southern California, I loved attending the Candlelight Processional with choirs carrying candles and wearing robes as they made their way to the base of the Main Street Train Station, and filled the risers and created a living Christmas tree. I loved hearing the narrator tell the story of the first Christmas, although I was often less impressed with the celebrity doing the reading than I was with the entire experience.

In the beginning the Living Christmas Tree was performed by the Western High School choir of Anaheim. When the music director of that school retired, Disneyland decided to turn over the “tree duty” to a cast choir.

During the transition, they were called the “Disney Employee Choir” because when the announcement was made during the ceremony, guests didn’t understand the term “cast member.” In addition, Disney didn’t want this group of talented volunteers to be confused with the park’s Entertainment division.

Having worked briefly as a Southern California public school teacher, I know that Disneyland would contact school choirs from as far north as Bakersfield and as far south as San Diego at the beginning of each school year to reserve their spots in that season’s performance.

While I never performed in a Candlelight Processional, I have had many good friends over the years who participated and when they shared their experiences with me, they were always magical.

However, like a lot of Disney history, I have never seen a document trying to record the history of this Disney Christmas tradition. So, in the spirit of sharing information that doesn’t exist elsewhere, I scoured cast publications, did some interviews and some roll-up-your-sleeves research and have come up with the following information.

According to legend and an unpublished manuscript about the history of Disney entertainment by Ron Logan, one day in 1958, Walt Disney supposed remarked to his friend Dr. Charles Hirt of the University of Southern California, “We need Christmas carolers at Disneyland. Can’t we have a choir assembled at the hub of Main Street by the Railroad Station in Town Square? Have them sing to the guests there, and I’ll listen from my office over the Fire Station.”

And so, the celebrated tradition of The Candlelight Processional began.

While this is a charming story, I have not found any documentation or confirmation that it was Walt himself who came up with the idea of the Candlelight Processional and presented it to Dr. Hirt to make it a reality. That is not to say there isn’t some truth in that story. It only means that in my research I couldn’t find anything to confirm it. However, I suspect like many Disney traditions, this one developed gradually to the level we recognize it today.

There were already Christmas carolers at Disneyland that very first holiday season in 1955 mere months after the park officially opened. During December 1955, there was a group of 12 Dickens Carolers (from the University of Southern California), under Hirt's direction, who performed throughout the park and guest choirs were invited to perform daily in the Main Street bandstand that had been recently moved to the Magnolia Park area of Adventureland by the Jungle Cruise.

“I trained the Disneyland carolers," said Hirt 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.”

In addition, in 1955 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.

By Christmas 1956, this holiday entertainment event was officially christened the “Christmas Bowl,” perhaps borrowing from the concept of the “Hollywood Bowl” that provided holiday concerts. A sign proclaiming that title was placed over the entrance to the bandstand area in Magnolia Park. Under 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 from Sleeping Beauty Castle into the Plaza where they performed. The Christmas Around the World Parade premiered at Disneyland in 1957 and ran until 1964 (later revived for 1980 through 1985) when it was officially replaced by the Fantasy on Parade that ran to 1976 during the holiday season. Christmas Around the World Parade included brightly costumed local ethnic dance and choral groups.

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, Hirt suggested to Disney Entertainment that performances by a larger massed choir group would be a welcome addition to future holiday events. Hirt taught at the University of Southern California's School of Music for 35 years. He organized the first USC concert choir and then the Chamber Singers who toured worldwide.

So, in December 1958, the first evening Candlelight Processional was held with singers from sixteen choirs moving down Main Street to the Plaza where they performed a full concert with the Dickens carolers singing from the Sleeping Beauty Castle balcony above.

As Hirt remembered in later years, “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.”

Celebrity narrators were introduced in 1961 with actor Dennis Morgan having the distinction of being the first one. He performed that role 1961-1964 and again in 1966. Dick Van Dyke, to help promote Mary Poppins, was the narrator in 1965.

Over the years, other narrators included some of Hollywood’s biggest stars including Cary Grant (who narrated at five of the ceremonies including one in Florida), Rock Hudson (who took part six times in the Florida ceremony and three times in California), John Wayne, Buddy Ebsen, Howard Keel (1985 and 1986 in Florida and 1987 in Disneyland), John Forsythe, James Earl Jones, Pat Boone (who sang “Go Tell It On the Mountain” as part of his narration) and many more.  Howard Keel’s presentation at Disneyland was filmed and shown on the Disney Channel.

“Cary Grant and Rock Hudson both wanted to narrate the ceremony again and again and they did it for free!” Hirt recalled.

Stormy rain clouds hovered over the ceremony in 1970 when Charlton Heston was narrator.

“He looked at me,” Hirt remembered , “and said ‘If I can part the Red Sea, then I can keep it from raining!’”

It did not rain on the ceremony that year.

“John Wayne had a terrible cough the day he was to perform [in 1971]," Hirt added. "He told me that he had pneumonia and I asked him what he was doing here. In reply, he said, ‘I’m not going to let all those kids down.’”

For the next 25 years, for two nights every December, Hirt, then chairman of the Choral Music Department at the University of Southern California, directed the 1,000-voice high school choir combined with a symphony orchestra and a narrator, recalling the story of the first Christmas.

When the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World opened its doors in 1971, Candlelight was transplanted to Florida where it was also performed at the train station on Main Street. Every season, the California and Florida programs mirrored each other with great success and attendance.

Hirt helped shepherd the original Walt Disney World version and,as a result, alternated his role with Jim Christensen in California. By the late 1960s, Christensen had taken over the directing role of the Disneyland Band from founder Vesey Walker (who still took up the baton occasionally during the week and on special occasions).

Christensen was the former director of the prize-winning University of Wisconsin Marching Band. He also served with the West Point Band as staff arranger and trombonist. He had experience as an arranger and conductor for television, radio, commercials, and road shows featuring Bob Hope, Pat Boone, and Rosemary Clooney among other headliners.

Joining Disneyland, he found the most requested number of the Disneyland Band by guests was the “Mickey Mouse March.” Second on the list was “The Marine Hymn.”

Over the years there have been some variances in the narration script and some different musical selections although most guests would not have been able to detect these subtle changes because the ceremony has basically remained the same for decades. To insure consistency of musical arrangements, in the 1970s, Christensen handled that aspect for both Disneyland and Walt Disney World.

“What we’ve done is to add a more professional look to it,” said Christensen in 1978.

In 1993, responding to guest requests for more opportunities to enjoy the performance, the Florida rendition of Candlelight was moved to Epcot for 15 nights with two presentations each evening, and with a different choir participating each night. That proved so successful that in 1994, thirty nights were utilized with two performances each evening, and still with a different choir every night.

The Candlelight Processional still entertains guests today on both coasts with its music and timeless message. I had friends who performed this last year and I went and once again was moved by the overall experience and it encouraged me even though times are tight to contribute to another Disney Christmas tradition: “Toys for Tots”.

Once again, I found no official document chronicling the history of the Disney connection other than Walt had his artists design the logo.

Toys for Tots began in 1947. Walt Disney became involved the very next year by having the studio design the Toys for Tots train logo that is still used to this day, as well as creating a poster to support the nationwide program.

Why a train for the logo? Well, perhaps it had something to do with the fact that just months before Walt attended the Chicago Railroad Fair with Ward Kimball and was already thinking about a miniature railroad in his backyard. Certainly, Walt always thought of toy trains at Christmas and often gave them as gifts.

Walt became involved because he was contacted by Major Bill Hendricks, the then-director of Public Relations for Warner Brothers Studio, who was part of the Los Angeles Maine Reservists. In 1947, Hendricks’ wife Diane had made a Raggedy Ann doll and asked her husband to give to an organization that helped needy children at Christmas.

Hendricks discovered no such agency existed so he started his own with the help of fellow Marines who collected and distributed new and used toys. The Marines used to refurbish the used toys on Reserve drill weekends, but since 1980 have only collected new toys.

Kelvin Bailey, a reserve Marine officer and one of the Disney Studios pilots for the company plane, bumped into Walt in a hallway in 1965 and told him that even though the program had been around for 17 years, it could benefit from a little Walt Christmas magic. Bailey was also the public relations man for the project.

Walt agreed and filmed a special television spot to promote the need to help children. Standing beside a barrel filled with new toys (and a picture of Donald Duck in a Santa outfit driving a Casey Junior like train filled with toys), Walt told television viewers: “Your local Marine Corps Reserve is doing everything possible to see that no unfortunate child is denied the pleasure of having a present to open this Christmas morning. Through their Toys For Tots campaign—and with your help—this can be done. If you’ll place a new toy in one of these barrels, the Marines will be happy to do the rest.”

Walt ‘s active participation in 1965 resulted in more than 1 million children receiving Christmas presents who would not have had a visit from Santa that year. It was an increase of 70 percent over the previous year so in 1966, Walt was once again requested to make a television pitch.

Walt not only did so but drafted the Disneyland characters and actress Greer Garson, who was filming The Happiest Millionaire on the lot, to make appeals.

Walt was very quiet and modest about his charity work which was quite extensive from his support for the John Tracy Clinic, a facility for deaf children and their families, or the children’s wards at St. Joseph Hospital decorated by Disney artists or countless other unsung acts of generosity.

Candlelight Processional and Toys for Tots are just two Christmas traditions firmly rooted in Walt Disney wanting to share the joy of the season with others.

Here is an early Christmas present for all of you: A listing for the first 30 years of Candlelight Processional narrators:


  • Dennis Morgan (1961-1964)
  • Dick Van Dyke(1965) (the last Candlelight ceremony that Walt attended)
  • Dennis Morgan (1966)
  • Gregory Peck (1967 Saturday)
  • Dean Jones (1967 Sunday)
  • Henry Fonda (1968, Saturday)
  • Rock Hudson (1968 Sunday)
  • Cary Grant (1969)
  • Charlton Heston (1971 Saturday)
  • Dean Jones (1970 Sunday)
  • John Wayne (1971)
  • Rock Hudson (1972)
  • Cary Grant (1973-1974)
  • Jimmy Stewart (1975)
  • Rock Hudson (1976)
  • Buddy Ebsen (1977 Saturday)
  • Ed Asner (1977 Sunday)
  • Cary Grant (1978)
  • Elliot Gould (1979 Saturday)
  • Joseph Cotton (1979 Sunday)
  • Michael Landon (1980)
  • Ed Asner (1981 Saturday)
  • Jason Robards (1981 Sunday)
  • Pat and Shirley Boone (1982)
  • Darren McGavin (1983)
  • Joseph Campanella (1984)
  • Kevin Dobson (1985)
  • Craig T. Nelson (1986 Saturday)
  • Elliot Gould (1986 Sunday)
  • Howard Keel (1987)
  • Joseph Campanella (1988)
  • John Forsythe (1989)
  • James Earl Jones (1990)
  • Robert Urich (1991)
  • George Kennedy (1992)

Walt Disney World

  • Rock Hudson (1971)
  • Cary Grant (1972)
  • Rock Hudson (1973-1974)
  • Dean Jones (1975)
  • Joseph Campanella (1976)
  • Rock Hudson (1977)
  • Ross Martin (1978)
  • Perry Como (1979)
  • Rock Hudson (1980)
  • James Hampton and Darrin McGavin (1981)
  • Pat and Shirley Boone (1982)
  • Joseph Campanella (1983)
  • Rock Hudson (1984)
  • Howard Keel (1985-1986)
  • Dean Jones (1987)
  • Walter Cronkite (1988)
  • McLean Stevenson (1989)
  • Joseph Campanella (1990)
  • George Kennedy (1991)
  • Paula Zahn (1992)