This month we celebrate the Season of Giving, and the generous legacy of Walt Disney. In addition to his generosity to the community and numerous charitable organizations over his lifetime, and the bounty of Walt’s influence in many areas of our culture around the world, Walt also began a holiday tradition at Disneyland that is still enacted annually.
The Christmas season is filled with warm memories of the past, as friends and family gather together to celebrate the magic of the holiday season. Throughout the month of December, The Walt Disney Family Museum screens Christmas with Walt Disney, a museum-exclusive film that looks back at the various ways Walt celebrated the holidays over the years—with his family, in his films, and at Disneyland. The Candlelight Processional is one of Walt Disney’s holiday traditions, and has become a special part of the magic of Christmas at Disneyland.
Today’s majestic Candlelight Processional began with Walt’s humble desire for Disneyland to have Dickens Carolers for its first Christmas celebration in December of 1955. The Dickens carolers, under the direction of Dr. Charles Hirt of the University of Southern California’s School of Music, performed throughout the park and at the Disneyland Bandstand. The Bandstand (located in the area that is now Carnation Plaza Gardens) hosted a variety of guest groups and choirs performing during the 1955 holiday season, and was christened the Disneyland Christmas Bowl.
During the 1957 Christmas season, choirs followed the Christmas Around the World Parade from Sleeping Beauty Castle to Town Square, where, directed by Dr. Hirt, they performed in a circle around the flagpole. The circular staging made it difficult for guests to see the choirs, so bleachers were constructed in front of the Main Street Train Station for the 1958 performance. The massed choirs now faced their audience on Main Street as they performed in the newly-christened Candlelight Processional. The show was further enhanced with the addition of “The Living Christmas Tree,” formed by the members of Anaheim’s Western High School A Cappella Choir, and in 1961, actor Dennis Morgan had the honor of being the first celebrity narrator to recite the Nativity story. Morgan narrated the show again from 1962 to 1964, sharing the duties with Gale Storm in 1962. Dick Van Dyke, fresh from his success as Bert the chimney sweep in Mary Poppins, narrated the last Candlelight attended by Walt Disney, in December 1965. Walt featured the Candlelight Procession twice on his Wonderful World of Color television program, first on December 23, 1962, during the Christmas themed episode “Holiday Time at Disneyland” and again on the December 18, 1966 episode, “Disneyland Around the Seasons.” “Disneyland Around The Seasons” would air three days after the untimely death of Walt Disney.
Over the years, Hollywood luminaries including Cary Grant, Rock Hudson, John Wayne, and Jimmy Stewart have narrated the Candlelight Processional. Today, the Candlelight Processional continues to be performed each Christmas season at Disneyland, a revered tradition and cherished Christmas gift from Walt that continues to inspire wonder, majesty, and joy in all who experience it.
(Thanks to Nathan Eick, Talent Casting Coordinator, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Creative Entertainment for providing a complete listing of the Candlelight Processional’s Celebrity Narrators.)
Joseph Titizian is an inaugural member of The Walt Disney Family Museum volunteer team. He is a regular contributor to this blog, and has developed continued education courses for the volunteer team. A lifelong Disney fan, Joseph has previously worked at Disneyland Park and Pixar Animation Studios.