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Lights! Candles! Action!

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

Brookgreen Gardens calls its biggest event of the year Nights of a Thousand Candles, but "it feels like Nights of a Billion Candles," said Sara Millar, manager of horticulture at the sculpture garden.

She and other staff members, along with a team of volunteers, spent the last two months stringing lights, cleaning hurricane lanterns, preparing luminary bags and decking out the gardens' two indoor galleries for the holiday season.

Beginning last Friday, the gardens will stay open late for three consecutive weekends, giving visitors the chance to see the grounds and the many artistic treasures aglow with more than 5,000 candles, 150,000 twinkling Christmas lights and, increasingly, laser lights. It takes three miles of extension cords to get power to all the lights, and 43 people and 60 minutes to light the candles every night.

Though the annual event lasts just seven nights in all, it's a full year in the making.

"As soon as this year's event is over, we’ll start thinking about next year," said Helen Benso, Brookgreen's vice president of marketing.

The horticulture staff spends the end of December and a good chunk of January taking decorations down after Nights of a Thousand Candles. Around the end of January, a meeting is scheduled for staff to talk about the event: what went right, what didn't and what can be improved.

"Really, it's always in the back of our minds," Millar said. "We'll see things here throughout the year, like a new herb garden, and say 'oh, that will look neat when it gets big enough to put lights on.' "

There are more lights for this year's event than ever before. They're draped over bushes, wrapped around trees and fences, hung from buildings, outlining pathways and covering an assortment of other surfaces.

Brookgreen increased the amount of electricity available to power the lights, so "we're finding even more things to wrap this year," Millar said. It's in the summer that planning for Nights of a Thousand Candles begins in earnest.

"You really get into the holiday spirit around here in probably late July. That's when you really start thinking about" Nights of a Thousand Candles, Millar said.

In August, the horticulture staff starts growing the poinsettia crop that will be used during the event. There were 1,500 of the plants in Brookgreen's greenhouse last month waiting to be put to use, along with bromeliads, Christmas cactuses and even carnivorous pitcher plants.

Decorating starts right after the members-only plant sale Brookgreen hosts the first weekend of October and continues steadily right up until opening night. Finishing touches are typically added a couple of hours before people start flooding through the gates.

While getting ready for Nights of a Thousand Candles, staff still have their normal duties to attend to, so they end up putting in a lot of overtime in the weeks leading up to the event, and looking for ways to balance their time.

Three days a week are usually devoted to decorating and getting ready for opening night. On those days, decorating is usually going on from 6:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., though days are even longer when "walk throughs" are scheduled.

As the lights go up, staff will periodically turn them on, so they can walk through the gardens in the evening to gauge their progress and make sure everything looks right.

While most of the work for the event is done by the 13-member horticulture staff, with invaluable aid from volunteers, everybody at Brookgreen pitches in.

"There's a huge sign-up sheet that goes around to all the different departments and everybody plugs in the days they can be most available. Then you pick things to help out with," said Chris Willhite, the events and public operations assistant.

Bob Jewell, Brookgreen's president, was out recently helping put up pedestals for candles on either side of live oak allée. They had to be driven into the ground and leveled.

Getting ready for the event is a "huge undertaking," Jewell said, but it's worth it to see the results.

"This has really come to be recognized as one of the premier events in the region, and justifiably so," he said. “We're delighted to be able to offer this event to the community."

Joan Wood of the Tradition Club and Karen Lowe of Heritage Plantation were among the volunteers who helped set up this year. Both have been volunteers with Brookgreen for about six years and said they always look forward to Nights of a Thousand Candles.

"I think it's just one of a kind," Wood said of the event. She especially enjoys walking down live oak allée after it's lit.

"The way they hang the lights, it feels like it’s a magical kingdom. Kids love it," she said.

She also likes that the sculptures look different with the garden lit at night and candles or globes floating in the fountains that surround so many of the works.

Nights of a Thousand Candles is a full sensory event with the lights, music and bellringers in the distance and the tang of crisp fall air, according to Wood and Lowe.

"It's just beautiful," Lowe said.

Entertainment changes each weekend, but there's always music. This year's schedule includes several hand-bell choirs, a jazz band, a string trio, a duo playing the hammered dulcimer and classical guitar, and a bagpiper who will stroll through the gardens.

Booking the entertainment sometimes begins more than a year in advance.

"There's a particular handbell choir we might start booking now for next year," Willhite said early last month. The last of the contracts for this year's entertainment had only been signed a day before, but booking for some performers has to start early.

"We've already been doing some research on entertainment for next year," Willhite said.

The last thing to be done before opening night is to set out the luminary bags, hurricane lamps and any other containers for candles. Staff generally finishes with lights by the end of November and starts with candles around the first of December, Millar said.

After that, it's just minor tweaking and hoping for good weather. It rained almost every day the event was held last year, which made it a trial to light the candles.

It was the worst weather the event has seen in eight years, Millar said.

"We bought a bunch of paper towels to keep drying the wicks and we had to keep switching the candles," she recalled.

Windy nights are also problematic, because the candles burn down faster and have to be relit when the wind blows them out.

"Windy is better than wet, though," said Christy Anouilh, a horticulturist at Brookgreen.

She recalled one night when the weather was "balmy" for Nights of a Thousand Candles. "You just never know what it's going to be like," she said. The forecast for opening night this year looks promising: cold and clear. That will be good news for all the people who have worked so hard on the event.

"Good conditions will let us really show off our work," Millar said.

Nights of a Thousand Candles continues Dec. 10-11 and 16-18, from 3-10 p.m. Tickets are $15 for adults and $6 for children. Members get a discount. For more information, including a full entertainment schedule, visit brookgreen.org.

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