Teams of Volunteers help create Nights of a Thousand Candles at Brookgreen Gardens
It feels nothing like the holidays on this sweaty September day, the official last day of summer.
But that doesn’t keep Peter Steinert from getting in the holiday spirit. For the past couple of weeks, he and others at Brookgreen Gardens have been in full swing decking out the gardens in preparation for one of the biggest holiday draws along the Grand Strand.
“Like, I hear Christmas songs in my head while I’m working. I’m thinking of Christmas songs,” he says, chuckling at his confession while taking a break from the 85-degree temperatures in the shade of a massive oak getting wrapped with strands of white lights.
While just after Labor Day may be too early for most to start decorating–or even think of decorating–for the holidays, there’s no time to waste at Brookgreen Gardens. Before they know it, it will be time to flip the switch on the popular Nights of a Thousand Candles, a premier holiday lights display that attracts not only locals, but holiday revelers from across the country and even a few from overseas. Travel+Leisure Magazine declared Nights of a Thousand Candles the “Best Christmas Lights in South Carolina.” The event kicks off Nov.ember 26 and runs through January 1.
A year-round job
Brookgreen Gardens becomes a magical holiday scene, with thousands of strands of lights artfully hugging tree branches, draped along the Spanish moss from the oaks and twinkling in all the right spots in the flower beds. More than 3,000 candles flicker along the walkways and bob in the ponds.
Behind the scenes, team members and volunteers work like elves nearly all year to pull off the holiday magic.
“It really is a year-round job,” says Janet Coen, manager of public exhibits at Brookgreen Gardens. “People don’t realize that, and then they see us wrapping [the trees with lights] and they are like, ‘Why are you starting already?’ We’ve been doing it since March. When we took them down, we were already beginning the process of putting them up.”
Pulling off Nights of a Thousand Candles–or NOTC, as it rolls off the tongues of Brookgreen workers and volunteers–is an intricate and comprehensive process, but one Brookgreen has down to a science.
“It’s really a juggling act and making sure you have enough time to get everything done,” Coen says as her cell phone constantly dings with calls from volunteers–use white lights or colored lights?–and alarms reminding her that it’s time for the workers to take their break. “You have to be organized. You have to plan it out. You have to have good people. It’s just making sure it all gets done.”
Teams focus on various tasks at different times throughout the year: planning new features, checking equipment, scraping wax from the candle holders, fixing pedestals.
The poinsettias you see in the brown sculpture garden and other spots? All 650 are grown from seedlings and nurtured by Brookgreen horticulturists all year until their moment at the big event.
“There’s a lot of different background stuff that you just don’t think about,” Coen says.
In fact, there’s so much to do that Brookgreen brings in extra elves as the holidays approach to make sure the gardens are ready. Volunteers clamor to snag a coveted spot on the installation crew, with some even trying to get a heads up when the call for volunteers will be made so they won’t miss the chance.
“Everybody wants to be part of Nights of a Thousand Candles because it is our biggest fundraiser,” Coen says. “Our signups always fill up. It’s hard to get a spot.”
Putting up the lights
Preparing and installing all the lights is the biggest task. The installation of lights and decorations begins just after Labor Day.
The volunteers have lots of work to do to prepare the displays. While visitors enjoy the gardens on a warm September day, teams of nearly 10 workers and volunteers are busy throughout the gardens, wrapping the tree limbs in lights, making stars for a display and checking the bulbs in the strands to make sure they are working – yes, every bulb gets checked before the strands of lights are installed.
The magnitude of the undertaking would make even Clark Griswold cringe. Crews install more than 110,000 strands of lights and use more than six miles of power cords.
Monica Cerkez, a volunteer and retired art teacher, says there’s more to it than simply slinging strands of lights around a few branches.
“It takes an artist’s eye. You have to decide where the lights go. It’s not just throwing them up there. You really have to look at it and really think, ‘What is this tree going to look like at night?’
“You make a lot of choices,” Cerkez continues, “a lot of spatial relationship with the lift trying to get up and around and through and not do any damage to these incredibly valuable trees. It’s a lot of this and a lot of that.”
Navigating around the plants and sculptures is one of the challenges of installation. Coen coordinates with the horticulturalists and others to make sure the lifts won’t damage any plantings or disrupt freshly placed mulch.
“Working a lift, they really have to be careful up there. You see him swinging?” she says, as the beeps alert those nearby to the machine’s movement. “He’s got to look out for the bell tower. He’s got to look out for shell boy [statue]. There are so many things you have to be aware of when you’re on a lift.
“We have to make sure we maintain the integrity of all the plants that are around,” she continues. “And that’s one of our obstacles. We have ladders, we have lifts, we have all of this stuff going in, and one of our main focuses is, don’t put a ladder on a plant. Don’t walk on a plant. Make sure you are not putting crates on a plant.”
Workers arrive by 6:30 a.m. most days– three hours before Brookgreen opens–to try to minimize any distraction for guests in the gardens. Still, with the lifts and the lights, the workers attract a fair amount of attention.
“They are amazed,” Coen says. “It’s actually good. They ask a lot of questions like, ‘Wow... already?’ or ‘What is it?’ or, ‘I’m so happy, I already have my tickets.’ ”
Before guests get to see the lights, workers and volunteers have to give them their stamp of approval. Teams stay in the gardens into the night to make sure the lights shine in the dark just the way they envisioned them.
“We’ll all walk through and take notes saying this needs more, that needs more, let’s wrap this tree, this light is out,” Coen says.
A holiday tradition
With 4,000 strands of lights dangling from eight massive Spanish moss-draped trees, Live Oak Allee remains one of the most popular features of the event. Visitors marvel at the sight, posing for photos that may end up on next year’s holiday card. It’s also been the backdrop for countless marriage proposals through the years.
“People come for that-that’s what they want to see,” Coen says. “Nights of a Thousand Candles is a lot about tradition, so a lot of the things don’t change. People want to see the big oaks lit. People want to see Oak Allee with all the streaming lights.”
But Coen’s team also makes sure guests have a few new features to enjoy. This year, Brookgreen is adding more bar lighting that is synchronized with sounds to offer another sensory experience.
The team gets creative in coming up with new features and often tries to incorporate existing materials. The strategy not only helps the environment by reusing materials, but helps the nonprofit’s budget.
For example, this year, volunteers are manipulating old coat hangers originally used for Brookgreen uniforms into festive stars that will decorate part of the gardens. Another new feature: seltzer bottles used in previous displays will combine with bamboo harvested from the gardens and be lit to make eye-catching Christmas trees.
“We try to repurpose things all the time,” Coen says.
It’s show time
The work doesn’t stop once all the lights are up. More than 100 volunteers, along with Brookgreen employees, keep the event running throughout the holidays.
“It’s not just putting it up and taking it down. It’s maintaining it and making sure that every night looks great,” Coen says.
Each night, volunteers light 3,000 candles–a task that takes about 30 minutes (the record is 20 minutes)– then snuff them out at the end of the evening. Some don waders to light the floating candles in the water features, which becomes an attraction in itself. Volunteers start lighting the candles shortly after the 4 p.m. opening.
“They love to see it all being lit,” Coen says. “You have people just standing around taking pictures of us lighting the candles. You get a crowd for that.”
Workers and volunteers take pride in having a role in NOTC, pointing out their handiwork as they bring loved ones to enjoy the holiday event.
“You walk around and say, ‘I did that tree,’ and they are like ‘Shut up, we know’” Cerkez says, laughing. “We all do that.”
As a first-timer working on the NOTC display, Steinert is eager to see it all come together.
“I’m looking forward to seeing when everything is done,” he says. “To walk through seeing everything. It’s a slow process, but I’m having a good time. Glad to be a part of it.”
Come January after the last guest strolls through NOTC, crews will start taking the lights down, a process that takes two to three months. As soon as the lights and decorations have been tucked away–usually by March–planning begins for the next one.
“As soon as it comes down, it’s right back into it,” says Coen.
WATCH the beautiful sights during the Nights of a Thousand Candles from Brookgreen Gardens in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina
–Janet Coen, manager of public exhibits at Brookgreen Gardens
Nights of a Thousand Candles schedule
November: 26, 27
December: 1- 4, 8-11, 15-18, 28-31
4-9 p.m. each night.
Advanced sale tickets only ($14-$35)
1931 Brookgreen Gardens Drive
(843) 235-6000; brookgreen.org
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