The Story of Christmas’s first event took place at lunchtime on 19 December 1978 and raised some £4,000 – around £23,000 in today’s money – for Shelter and The Evening News Toys for Sick Children Appeal. It was organised by the partners of PROPIS (Julian Glasgow, John Osborne and Robert Spooner) as a Christmas celebration. Edward Fox, Felicity Kendal, Lord Harlech, Simon MacCorkindale, Frank Finlay and other popular faces from public life read at the service. The Duke of Westminster, Asprey, Citibank, Debenhams, Greycoat Estates, Hammerson, Knight Frank & Rutley, Liberty & Co., London & Manchester Securities, Marks & Spencer, MEPC, Slough Estates (now SEGRO), Strutt & Parker, and Wells Fargo were among the many supporters.
A second event in 1979 took place in the evening and raised £11,000 for the same pair of charities. By then His Grace The Duke of Westminster had become Patron and Gerald Powell, Director of Haslemere Estates, Chairman of the Organising Committee. Readers included Penelope Keith, Felicity Lott, Barbara Cartland and Edward Fox, returning once again.
In 1980 a fundraising target of £20,000 was set, which was achieved by July of that year, three weeks after the charitable appeal had launched. Their Royal Highnesses The Prince & Princess Michael of Kent were present. This was also the first year of Dame Judi Dench’s involvement, beginning a very close association that continues to this day.
The event has always taken place at St George’s Hanover Square, in the commercial heart of Mayfair – a part of London traditionally associated with the property industry. Its format has always been that of service of Nine Lessons and Carols, with the readings delivered by celebrated names from worlds of stage and screen. Magnificent music has always been performed by renowned choirs, military bands and soloists.
By 1983 over £100,000 was raised and a revitalised champagne reception began to follow the service – organised by a firm of PR consultants (the partners of which, Tessa Kilgour and Sara Turnbull, continue to help organise the event). By the late 1980’s, at the suggestion of Allsop (one of The Story of Christmas’s many longstanding supporters) a live Charity Auction featured at the reception. The Silent Auction has been added to this since 2013. Fundraising has always focused upon the sponsorship of pages in a souvenir brochure, produced each year.
Leading figures in the property and construction industries quickly surrounded The Story of Christmas and offered to donate. Those wishing to become closely involved and champion support became known as “Vice Presidents” – today there are many modern property leaders supporting in that capacity. Over the years, contributions strengthened tremendously and millions of pounds were raised. In-keeping with the original pair of charities, a focus on homelessness and children has been maintained. Gradually a charitable remit emerged with a preference for capital projects. This is still very much the focus now.
The Story of Christmas has taken place in the presence of several members of the Royal Family (including The Duchess of Cornwall, Diana Princess of Wales, The Duchess of York, The Princess Royal, Princess Margaret, The Duke & Duchess of Gloucester and The Prince and Princess Michael of Kent) and several British Prime Minsters (including Sir Edward Heath, Baroness Thatcher and Sir John Major). A great many celebrated names have read or performed at the service. Numerous leading property and construction companies have supported on a regular basis – and support now has branched out into other sectors, including finance and law among others.
In 2007, The Story of Christmas was left a legacy by a generous and long-established donor, the late Mrs Lilian Sutton. The Story of Christmas (Lilian Sutton Bequest) Trust was established to manage this fund, which now makes a substantial annual charitable contribution.
For several decades, the overall organisation of The Story of Christmas was masterminded by Robert Spooner, who was awarded an MBE by the Queen in 2003 for his unstinting efforts. Robert was taken ill in 2009 and later died. The musician Marc Corbett-Weaver (who had been involved with the event since 2004 when he first appeared as a performer) dived in at a late stage that year to produce the event. Since then Marc has coordinated the organisation of The Story of Christmas each year, working closely with its many Vice Presidents and Trustees. In 2011, The Story of Christmas became a registered charity.
A launch reception announcing major sponsors and the selected charitable projects often takes place in the Spring. Most recently this has taken place at Bonhams on New Bond Street. Smaller events for major sponsors and site visits to The Story of Christmas’s charitable projects are organised during the year.
In 2017, to celebrate 40 years of The Story of Christmas Dame Judi Dench became Life President and Ian Hislop President. It is hoped that around £500,000 will be raised through the 2017 Event.