If you don’t know what UFOs, dinosaurs and the Arthur Ravenel Bridge have to do with Christmas, well, that’s a shame.
Because you’re missing out.
For seven weeks every year, the James Island County Park is transformed into one of the largest Christmas light shows in the country. And it manages to make the best park in Charleston even better.
These light displays — 750 of them and counting — are just fun. Who doesn’t like Santa hitting a golf ball, dolphins jumping in a pond, or wind blowing through a live oak?
Or Jaws lurking on the side of the road?
OK, the aliens and dinosaurs are admittedly out there, but it works.
The Holiday Festival of Lights is in its 24th year now, believe it or not. And without creating a big fuss, the show has done something nearly impossible in these times: it has become a new tradition in a town that doesn’t often cotton to new things.
People go back every year, drive through two or three times. They go with their families, ride the carousel, try to figure out what’s new in the show. Some couples have even gotten engaged in this winter wonderland. That’s how much it means to some people.
Actually, a lot of people have embraced the tradition. The Parks and Recreation Commission is expecting the one millionth visitor sometime in the next month.
But here’s a secret about the Holiday Festival of Lights: the people who put it on are having just as much — if not more — fun than any of us.
David Chappell says it’s like Christmas when it comes time to unpack the 28 trailers where the lights are stored.
Well, a working Christmas.
It takes months to get the show ready; the live oak alone takes 80 hours to set up. The planning takes all year. But once it’s up, it’s pure magic.
The PRC folks are proud of their work, deservedly so. They are bringing a lot of Christmas cheer to people, and that is a worthwhile and grand thing in these times.
And, it’s true, they like the show as much as we do, even have their favorites.
“I love the Arthur Ravenel Bridge,” Chappell says. “We had the old Cooper River Bridge and we didn’t want to lose that tradition. So we fabricated some cranes while they were building the new bridge and made the transformation.”
The Festival of Lights began in 1990 with 18 displays — including St. Michael’s Church and the jack-in-the-box. Those two have never moved.
Those first lights were built by Bernie Pettit of West Virginia, but since then Rich Raab — the in-house genius behind the festival — has designed and built the rest. His first was the Santa on top of the Park Center.
In recent years, Raab has taken some ideas from local school kids, who compete to come up with designs. These students dreamed up the new state flag display and the Ferris wheel — both good ones.
This work means a lot to Raab, but he mostly lets the show do the talking. Ask him his favorite display, and he hesitates.
“It’s too hard to pick,” Raab says. “I like the eagle with the stars, if I had to pick one.”
But he doesn’t really want to. They are all his babies.
And frankly, everyone in town who visits the festival knows just how he feels.
Y’all come back now
Some people associate the annual light show with traffic on Maybank Highway and Riverland Drive.
What do you expect? They’ve had more than 12,000 folks in a single night. They’ve come a long way from that first year, when an impressive 85,000 people drove through the two-mile display.
Last year, nearly a quarter-million people took in the lights. Word has gotten out. The staff has seen license plates from all 50 states — and Hawaii is quite a trick. The Festival of Lights was named one of the top 100 events in North America for 2012, the Southeastern Tourism Society has named it one of the top 20 events, and it is considered one of the top ten light shows in the United States.
Maybe the Festival of Lights even helps as Charleston wins ‘best tourist town in the universe’ year after year. Come to think of it, maybe that’s why the aliens are there.
Word gets around.
If you haven’t been to the Holiday Festival of Lights, do yourself a favor and go. And if you think you’ve been there, done that, go back. There is always something new.
It’s part of the tradition — a tradition that Charleston is very lucky to have.
Reach Brian Hicks at firstname.lastname@example.org