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Over the holidays in Charleston, let there be light

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Ah, the sheer splendor of holiday lights. Their innocent glow has long evoked the magic of the season, twinkling from trees and amping up curbsides with wondrous wattage.

This year, light displays possess even more fantastical power, shining from afar with a luminosity often best seen 6 feet away by stroll or drive.

Light installations are particularly fitting for Charleston, too. Their temporary status eludes cumbersome city permissions that can mire permanent public displays.

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Holiday Festival of Lights - kid pointing out of window (copy) (copy)

The Holiday Festival of Lights has returned, but with some coronavirus-era stipulations. File/Provided

Around town, some time-honored takes continue to demonstrate their annual appeal.

For starters, the Holiday Festival of Lights at James Island County Park is a go-to drive-through for families and other enthusiasts, with added pandemic-related measures this year.

And the towering, multicolored wireframe tree in the middle of Marion Square Park with its irresistible interior views has served as a cherished holiday photo op for years.

Colonial Lake's mid-water tree light was further adorned by its surroundings when, in 2016, they were spruced up by the Charleston Parks Conservancy with new sidewalks and granite stone, not to mention 20,000 plants that make for a picture-perfect promenade around the faithful, floating central tree.

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Rusty Zimmerman and Debbie Zimmerman, visiting from Florida, watch the Cougar Night Lights holiday light show at the cistern at the College of Charleston Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020 in Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Four years ago, the College of Charleston launched Cougar Night Lights, an annual holiday offering in Cistern Yard featuring 43,000 lights, including displays pulsing on the columns of historic Randolph Hall and set to both holiday standards as well as pop songs.

Those lights have street cred, too. They were produced and designed by John Reynolds, a College of Charleston alumnus who has won numerous Emmy awards for his lighting design and whose work has been featured in lighting extravaganzas including the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Super Bowl.

The show, which was created for both students and the community, has been a particular ray of light in a challenging time.

Alicia Caudill, executive vice president for student affairs, said that last summer, as the team was making plans for fall programming and activities, students, particularly seniors, asked specifically that the college not cancel this year’s light show.

“It’s a bit of comfort and a bit of normalcy during a very tough and abnormal year,’ she said, while encouraging others to visit Cistern Yard for the half-hour program, which adheres to all College social-distancing and face mask requirements and held nightly through Jan. 1.

This year’s new decorative flourish on King Street availed of light, too, in the form of the street lamps that already punctuate the sidewalks.

King Street Hanging Baskets (copy)

The city of Charleston has partnered with Charleston Water System, Explore Charleston and the Charleston Restaurant Foundation to provide decorated hanging baskets on street lamps along King Street between Spring and Broad streets. Brad Nettles/Staff

Twin hanging baskets brimming with ornaments, holiday greens and twinkle lights hang from each lamppost. When the holidays are over, they will be replenished with each season, with sponsorships paying to replace winter trimmings with new flowers.

Some may recall the rooftop star that used to gleam atop the old Sergeant Jasper, which was lit as a tradition signaling the start of the season. This year, The Beach Co. revived it and refreshed it, placing a 20-by-20-foot glittering megastar on the ground-level plaza between The Jasper’s office and residential buildings along Broad Street. The public is invited to visit the star as they make their rounds of holiday light-peeping.

Perhaps, though, the newcomer luminary most resonant with this hunkered-down holiday is the series of projections now lighting up the petite, tranquil Theodora Park that opened in 2015, the result of a collaboration of donors, artists, designers and builders, the City of Charleston and Charleston Parks Conservancy.

According to Dan Daniel, director of development and communications at Charleston Parks Conservancy, community member David Rawle drove both the funding and the vision for the initiative, which is named after his mother Theodora.

"I give David a lot of credit," he said, citing not only Rawle's effort but his design understanding, conceiving the space to afford the public a moment of respite. 

According to Daniel, Rawle was also responsible for the new light display, a two-minute cycle of projected uplifting words and messages that at present transform the park's components and its surrounding surfaces.

"Everything was intentional," said Rawle, noting that the projecting on places like tree trunks and building tops required theatrical lighting design, which was created by Rhys Williams at Work Light Productions. Even the font, Universe Bold, was deeply considered to be accessible and non-institutional. According to Rawle, the goal was affirm the sense of hope that he feels is within all humans.

In it, glowing words like "hope" and "imagine" cascade down trunks of palmetto trees and encouraging phrases grace the walls and structures of surrounding homes with a more meditative brand of holiday luster.

One burns particularly bright for this wary Christmas, projected onto a stuccoed chimney that may well entice a certain jolly roof-hopper. Rawle recently observed a lively family spotting it, and falling silent in a moment of reflection.

It reads: "Only in the darkness can you see the stars."

Follow Maura Hogan on Twitter at @msmaurahogan.

Maura Hogan is the arts critic at The Post and Courier. She has previously written about arts, culture and lifestyle for The New York Times, Gourmet, Garden & Gun, among other publications.