There is no more magical time of the year than at Christmas. As this festive time of the year rolls around, almost everyone, whether you are a Christian or not, this holiday of love, giving, family and the commemoration of the birth of Jesus Christ is celebrated religiously by a majority of Christians and by many non-Christians. In many countries, it is a public holiday, no more so than in the United States. And it is celebrated in countless ways, creating traditions and memories of all who embrace it. Here in the United States, one of the most popular venues to count this Holiday is at none other than your Favorite Disney Park. Here at Disneyland Resort or Walt Disney World, guests can revel in the myriad of Christmas Decorations, trees, lights and shows. The Magic of Disney is the perfect companion to the Magic of Christmas.
The fact that Christmas is celebrated at the parks comes to no surprise. It was preconceived years ago in a young Walter Elias Disney, long before the animation bug bit. Walt was a product of traditional Midwestern family values and strong religious upbringing. His Father, Elias (Who sometimes filled in as a preacher at the local church in Chicago) and Mother Flora were God-fearing folks who believed in hard work and strong family ties. Walt and his siblings were always taught the value of family and God, and of course Christmas. So when Disneyland came to fruition, the Christmas celebration was a natural addition.
The History of Christmas at Disneyland is interesting and of course, the story itself has a bit of magic in it. The first year the park opened, that December in 1955 a group of twelve Dickens Christmas Carolers from the University of Southern California performed all through the park. This group was under the direction of Dr. Charles Hirt, Chairman of the Choral Music Department of the University of Southern California. This became so popular that guest choirs were invited to perform on the Main Street bandstand, now located to the Magnolia Park area by the Jungle Cruise. Dr. Hirt recalled that the opening of this holiday tradition, the Carolers and a chorus consisting of 300 members, made up of visiting choirs stood on the Maid Street Train Station steps, singing and accompanied by visiting school bands. These performances led up to the creation of Disneyland’s most cherished tradition, the Candlelight Processional.
When Christmas time 1956 came, the event was given the moniker the “Christmas Bowl” and official recognition. At the Magnolia Park bandstand, the sign “Christmas Bowl” was placed over the entrance. Again, under Hirt’s direction and accompanied by the Disneyland Band, carolers and singers comprising talent from eight choirs continued to perform on the Main Street Station bandstand. The event continued to grow even larger, with choirs following the Christmas around the World Parade, (Which bowed at Disneyland in 1957, running to 1964. It was replaced by the Fantasy on Parade, until 1976) beginning from Sleeping Beauty Castle ending in the Plaza for the performance. This parade included holiday festooned ethnic dance and choral groups. However, due to the swelling crowd sizes, the original plan to perform in a circle in the center of the Plaza became impossible. They improvised and performed around the Disneyland band, so more guests could view the festivities.
The story behind the first Candlelight Processional, like many Disney stories, truth and fact blur with reality. Supposedly, a piece (Unpublished) on the history of Disney entertainment by former executive vice president of Walt Disney Entertainment Ron Logan, read that one day in 1958 Walt purportedly remarked to his friend Charles Hirt…“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.” Thus, the celebrated tradition of The Candlelight Processional began. There is no confirmation or written proof of this. It could be true, so much history of the Disney Company is lost to the mists of time, but however the idea became a reality, it continues on to this day.
One of the oldest traditions at Disneyland, all Walt Disney cast members can contend for a place in the choir. Selected members are part of the unique telling of the story of Christmas on Main Street. They will march down Main Street, the processional part, and once there, will step upon the Christmas tree risers, so the whole choir looks just like a lighted Christmas tree. The chosen narrator will begin telling the story of Christmas, and they will accompany as such, and sing classic Christmas Carols. When the processional began, the Living Christmas Tree was staged by the Western High School choir of Anaheim. After the retirement of the school’s music director, Walt decided to assign the duties to a cast member choir. Initially, they were called the “Disney Employee Choir” so guests would not confuse the term cast member. Walt also did not want the cast volunteers to be confused with Disneyland’s Entertainment division. The first Candlelight Processional was held in December 1958, but when the carolers rounded the flagpole in the Town Square, Disney realized it was very challenging for guests to see, since Dr. Hirt who was conducting, was in the center. They solved the problem by constructing bleachers adjacent to the train station. Now the carolers were facing the guests straight-on Main Street.
The largest choir to perform at the Processional was on December 22nd, 1959. The choir consisted of 2,574 singers. The first processional to perform on a stage in front of the Main Street Train Station was in 1961. Celebrity narrators began in 1961, the first being actor Dennis Morgan, who continued yearly until 1964. In 1965, Disney Legend Dick Van Dyke assumed the duties; to help endorse the new film “Mary Poppins”. Dennis Morgan narrated again in 1966. Other notable narrators included Cary Grant, Rock Hudson, John Wayne, Buddy Ebsen, Pat Boone, James Earl Jones and many more.
In 1971, when Walt Disney World bowed, the processional began performances at the train station on Main Street. Both the Disneyland and Walt Disney World’s programs were identical, and continued with great success. Dr. Hirt helped marshal the Walt Disney World performance, and as such staggered his role with composer, Jim Christensen in California. The ceremony performed two nights every weekend, a couple of shows a night. In 1993, Walt Disney World moved the processional to EPCOT, adding nights over the years as guests yearned for more performances. Eventually, the processional ran for 15 nights, with two shows per night. This panned out so successfully that in 1994, Disney performed the processional for thirty nights, two shows each evening. There was even a different choir each night.
Disneyland tried to perform the show in the Fantasyland Theater in 1998, but returned on Main Street. In 2012, the processional ran for 20 nights, December 1st through the 20th. However, in 2013, Disneyland reverted to its original format of two night, and two shows a night. Heading up the processional in Disneyland, Jim Christensen was the former director of the University of Wisconsin Marching Band, an experienced arranger and conductor for Television and radio commercials, he also ministered with the West Point Band as staff arranger and trombonist. According to Jim, over the years there had been slight adjustments in the script narrations, and some subtle musical selections. However most guests would not perceive the changes, fundamentally because the program remained the same for years. To insure uniformity of the arrangements, Christensen handled both aspects for Walt Disney World and Disneyland. Christensen stated in 1978… “What we’ve done is to add a more professional look to it,” Most remarkable, when asked the most requested songs of the Disneyland Band was the “Marine Hymn” and the “Mickey Mouse March!”
Today, the Candlelight Processional still enthralls guests with its message of peace and hope, the story of Christmas and the birth of Jesus. With its music and pageantry, it will continue for years to come. That is why so many guests plan their Christmas vacations and get-a-ways and head for Disney to celebrate this “Magical” time of the year in the most “Magical” place on earth!