Initially, the bright idea was to create additional visitors during a time when few people would come to James Island County Park.
That was 1990. The first year there were 18 light displays.(In my neighborhood, some have more in their front yards.) Today, there are more than 2 million lights that blink and flash and strobe along a three-mile drive through the park. In the beginning, cars made extra laps along the route because you had to; these days you keep circling because you want to.
From the beginning, the guy whose job it’s been to keep the lights on is Rich Raab. For a guy who knows where all 2,500 breakers are, he sure hates the spotlight. He shuns interviews, but has a hand in building virtually every display in the park. At the moment, that total is 750.
Pack ’em in
Last year, 225,000 people came through the gates, or about a third of the annual attendance. Not every display speaks to traditional holiday themes ... unless Santa had a few dinosaurs pulling a sleigh one year.
But once you wait in line, pay and start your journey, you just have to go with the flow. Otherwise, the flamingoes and volcanoes won’t really elicit warm, Christmas feelings.
There are many other traditional sightings that will, though. The giant poinsettia sparkles with red and green blinking lights. There’s a huge menorah not far from the large snowflakes hanging in the oak trees. After 23 years, you expect to see some of the same displays, and we want to see ’em in the same places.
My personal favorite: the old and new Cooper River bridges. It’s one of the first really big displays that grabs your attention, and the reflection across the pond doubles the visual experience. These bridges connect old and new memories, which is what the holidays are supposed to do.
Let your light shine
Volunteers are key to the set-up and dismantling. It takes about three months to remove them from storage and assemble. In January, it requires another two months to take them down. It seems all the stuff at my house comes down a whole lot quicker, too. Why is that?
The first year the Festival of Lights was supposed to debut was 1989, but Hurricane Hugo left too many ornaments hanging all over the Lowcountry. Plus, a lot of people had just gotten their electricity back. The park opened the following September, with the lights brightening the James Island sky just a few months later.
Since then, a walking trail has been added that leads to Santa’s Village. There’s a pit to roast marshmallows, and for an additional charge, a train ride. Youth groups come in pickup trucks, and on some warmer nights, children peek their heads through the car’s sunroof (or is that just something I allowed my kids and now my grandson to do?)
We dim our lights, turn on Christmas music and take our traditional journey, pointing out different displays to younger eyes.
It’s a Charleston Christmas tradition. It’s not always the bright lights on the outside that make the biggest impression, but the glow on the faces inside. It’s one of Charleston’s holiday happenings, and hopefully, that glow will last long after those lights are turned off.
Reach Warren Peper at firstname.lastname@example.org.