Skip navigation
test 3

The ABC of Australian Christmas Carols

Thumbnail image

Often forgotten in recollections of ABC achievements is the national broadcaster’s role in creating a collection of much-loved Australian Christmas carols. Former staff sound librarian and music collections coordinator Lynne Carmichael was introduced to them while singing in choirs in her 20s and 30s. They’ve formed an important part of her own Christmas celebrations ever since.

The ABC of Australian Christmas Carols

By Lynne Carmichael / 10 December 2022

I was 10 years old when my family moved to Australia from England. So my first Christmas here was quite disorienting. All around were decorations depicting wintry images of snow and ice, reindeers and sleighs, along with all the trappings I’d known in the Northern Hemisphere. But I was sweltering in a typical sunny Australian December heatwave.

How I missed, at least in the beginning, my former white Christmases. Imprinted in my memory were the happy days of walking home from school in the early winter darkness, with windows offering ‘squares of a dusky orange-red on either side of the street’ as Kenneth Grahame depicted so evocatively in The Wind in the Willows. And like Mole, I would be observing brief glimpses of other lives on these tiny stages.

Of course, Christmas would not be Christmas without carols. When I first arrived here, we played the traditional tunes – Silent Night, Away in a Manger, O Come All Ye Faithful and so many others. This too seemed a little strange.

But that was 1960 and I’ve felt differently in the six decades since then.

In my 20s, singing in choirs, I discovered a world of Christmas without snow or ice or holly opened up. And a large part of that was due to the ABC.

In the late 1940s and 50s, the national broadcaster produced a range of wonderful carols with imagery of red dust and brown grass in paddocks, of brolgas dancing, and of drovers in the bush at night. They were performed by ABC ensembles and later released on records which sold in great numbers. And they were heard often on radio, including on the ABC School Broadcasts of the period – and, as the carols are well suited to children’s voices, they became a regular feature of Christmas concerts and school plays too.

These carols, I discovered, were the cheerful collaboration of two ABC staffers – music composed by William G. James and the endearing lyrics of John Wheeler.

Alas, I do not recall them in my own schooling just a decade or so later and, unfortunately, they have never regained the prominence of those earlier times.

Composer William G. James (left) and lyricist John Wheeler, the two ABC staffers who created the Australian Christmas Carols. 

From classical music to popular tunes

Within a few years of its inception in 1932, the ABC created a huge music department which, as with its drama department, was pivotal in developing the nation’s cultural life.

In fact, the original ABC Act specifically stated that: “The Commission shall endeavour to establish and utilize ... groups of musicians for the rendition of orchestral, choral and band music of high quality.”

In keeping with this directive, ABC symphony orchestras soon became a feature in every state. Classical music was prioritised, in line with the new national broadcaster’s mission to educate and enlighten, and to cultivate a national public desire for music and other interests that, as some described it, ‘tend to elevate the mind’.

But an energetic management ensured that composers and musicians were nurtured in every genre.

Fortuitously for those of us who love Christmas, the first of four Federal Directors of Music (FDMs) was the composer William Garnet James who served in the role from 1932 until his retirement in 1957.

In the Commission era of the ABC, the FDM was an extremely important position. He (all four FDMs were men) not only determined the classical music to be heard on radio, but also in ABC orchestral concerts and recitals, and, from 1956, on television. And in the early days of television, this meant not only instrumental music but commissioned ballets and operas staged in full costume.

Just as importantly, FDMs were the ABC interface with the international music scene – touring overseas to become familiar with foreign artists who might be invited to tour widely in Australia and perform with the ABC orchestras.

Australian-born William G. James spent his early career in London and Brussels, where he became well regarded as a composer, conductor and concert pianist.   

W.G. James, who was born in Ballarat in 1892, had studied piano at Melbourne University’s Conservatorium of Music. After graduating in 1912, he headed overseas to further his studies in London and Brussels.

He soon established a reputation in England as a concert pianist, conductor, and composer of a wide range of works, including ballet and operetta scores and music for, among others, Peter Dawson and Dame Nellie Melba.

Despite his classical music pedigree, James had wide and eclectic musical tastes.

It was during this period that he composed his rousing Six Australian Bush Songs – ironically with words by a lyricist who had never actually visited Australia, Richard Baylis. Published in 1922 (later recorded, in 1927, by bass-baritone Dawson, and released as a 78 rpm record the following year1, they became so popular in England and Australia that the musicologist David Tunley observed in his 2007 biography of James2 that The Stock-Riders Song “still resounds strongly in the memory of older people who are apt to burst into song at the mention of it!”.

Creating the Australian carols

On his return to Australia in 1923, James taught at his alma mater, the Melbourne University Conservatorium, under the influential conductor and academic Bernard Heinze (with whom he later collaborated to develop the ABC orchestras). James toured widely in Australia as accompanist to famous singers of the day, gaining a first-hand insight into audiences which would hold him in good stead when he moved into broadcasting in the late 1920s and, ultimately, as ABC Federal Director of Music – a role to which he was appointed when the ABC began in 1932 and held for 25 years. During all this time he continued to write for piano, choir and voice, as well as creating countless opportunities for others and, crucially, personally negotiating for eminent international artists to undertake national tours of this country who might not have taken the long sea voyage had it not been for an invitation from a person of his calibre. As noted by biographer Tunley, William James was ‘a driving force in developing modern Australian music’.

It was two decades after his Bush Songs, and well into his term as the ABC’s first FDM, that James wrote the music for the first five of his 15 Australian Christmas carols3, all with lyrics by an ABC staff colleague.

Examples of early sheet music for the Australian carols.

The lyricist, John Wheeler, worked at the ABC as a scriptwriter (from 1938 to 1964), but he also wrote poetry, verse plays and lyrics for many songs besides the carols for which he is best known. On the origin of the carols in the 1940s and 1950s, he is quoted by Tunley as saying:

“Just as the carols of the old world owe so much to the local colour of the countries which produced them, so it was felt that the new land of Australia – where Christmas is celebrated in high summer – should have its own carols with their distinctive background.”

The carols – five of which were released in 1948, and the remaining ten in the mid-1950s – were instant hits in Australia and well received in England and the US too, with performances in 1957 at London’s St Paul’s Cathedral and on American TV. In 1961 they were contributed by the ABC to a program of Christmas carols from five continents, produced by the Italian broadcaster RIA. Twenty years later, in 1981, words from some of his carols were illustrated on commemorative stamps for Christmas.

Examples of early sheet music for the Australian carols.

To me, as much as I’m stirred by James’s music, it’s Wheeler’s poetic evocations of an Australian Christmas that are the true strength of the appeal of these collaborations. Favourites among the 15 pieces are The Carol of the Birds4 (often referred to as ‘Orana’ due to the power of this word in the final line of each of its three verses – ‘Orana! Orana! Orana to Christmas Day’) and The Three Drovers6, along with ‘The North Wind’ – Christmas Day7 which may have achieved ‘iconic’ status, having appeared in two hymn books for congregational use – The Australian Hymn Book of 1977 and Together in Song of 1999.

So when you hear these or others from the fifteen Australian carols created by James and Wheeler, it is due to the ABC that these charming little works came into being to provide a uniquely Australian view of Christmas.

To quote the Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology’sassessment: “These texts mark the emergence of a truly national spiritual sensibility.”

As for me, while I can still feel nostalgia for the warmth of light against the chilly evening, I’ve become accustomed to Christmas as a time of heat and light from the sun rather than from cosy interiors! 

These days I live that migrant experience ‘between two worlds’. Christmas here is a series of ‘mauve’ experiences as the flowers in the garden move through the sequence of springtime wisteria, to unwelcome blue cedars that bring me massive attacks of hay fever, to the bright purple jacarandas and their splashes of colour against the suburban landscape which I first saw from my office in the ABC’s Collinswood building in Adelaide. Inevitably, the heat of summer also brings the agapanthus and memories of my mother, who always brought the flowers from her garden to our Australian Christmas lunch. She used to say that they often first bloomed in her garden on Christmas morning.

And there’s always the music of James and Wheeler echoing in my ears.

You can still find old recordings of these wonderful Australian carols, some of them accessible on YouTube. But perhaps as the ABC comes to the end of its 90th year, it is time for a new recording for use on radio, television and online when the Christmas season comes around again. They deserve to be heard widely by a new generation.

To listen to the Australian Christmas Carols created by William G. James and John Wheeler for the ABC, please see the links in the Footnote below. The full set of 15 carols, in an original ABC inhouse recording, can be heard here.


1 Music: Peter Dawson Sings – Six Australian Bush Ballads 1927, December 1927 recording. A 78 rpm record Six Australian Bush Songs, featuring Dawson, was released by His Master’s Voice in 1928. (YouTube)

2 William James and the beginning of modern musical Australia by David Tunley, Australian Music Centre, 2007.

3 Music: Australian Christmas Carols, The Adelaide Singers & The South Australian Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Patrick Thomas, ABC & Warner/Chappell Music. This original inhouse recording for broadcast was released commercially as an LP record in 1969 and features all 15 of the James/Wheeler carols. (YouTube)

4 Music (in addition to the original Adelaide recording above): An Australian Christmas – Carol of the Birds, Sydney Philharmonic Motet Choir, ABC Music; and Orana Orana (The Carol of the Birds) ABC Kids. (YouTube)

5 Orana to William G James – a mostly forgotten Australian songwriter by Loretta Barnard, 17 December 2019.

6 Music (in addition to the original Adelaide recording above): The Three Drovers – Australian Christmas Carol, Sydney Philharmonic Motet Choir, ABC Music. (YouTube)

7 Music: ‘The North Wind’ – Christmas Day is the third track, at 4’13”, on Australian Christmas Carols, The Adelaide Singers & The South Australian Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Patrick Thomas, ABC & Warner/Chappell Music. (YouTube)

Continue Reading

Read More