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Nights of a Thousand Candles: Brookgreen event grows as a holiday tradition

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Staff from Brookgreen Gardens traveled to Longwood Gardens near Philadelphia last year to see the Christmas display. They came back with some ideas that will be unveiled next week when Brookgreen lights up for the Nights of a Thousand Candles.

But one idea that didn’t travel was opening the display in November. The lights went on at Longwood on Thanksgiving.

Brookgreen initially planned to start its display Nov. 30. “That’s a little early,” said Helen Benso, vice president for marketing.

Nights of a Thousand Candles are among the biggest nights – or even days – of the year at Brookgreen. An attendance record of 6,400 was set one night last year. By comparison, the Harvest Home Weekend, held over two days in October, drew 6,600 people.

The event is held over seven nights between Dec. 7 and Dec. 22. Brookgreen stays open until 10 each night and the lighted gardens and sculptures are open for strolling. A range of soloists and small groups perform music ranging from folk and jazz to traditional holiday tunes. Bill Oberst will perform his one-man version of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and Ron Daise will perform a “Gullah Christmas.”

The challenge is keeping the event fresh while respecting the tradition. “We want to stay true to the candle-lighting aspect,” Benso said. “A lot of people have gotten away from that because it’s labor intensive.”

She estimates the number of candles at 5,500. In addition, there are electric lights strung through the gardens.

“They’re very creative, they really are,” Benso said. “The whole staff gets involved, but the horticulture staff leads the way.”

Bob Jewel, the president of Brookgreen, said this year “there will be a little more color, but not going overboard.”

The event started in 1999. In 2004, the decision was made to turn it into the area’s premiere Christmas event. Jewel likens it to the Macy’s parade. “You just change some of the peripherals,” he said. As the audience has grown, Nights of a Thousand Candles has expanded into more areas of the gardens.

“Every year we feel we’ve made improvement,” Jewel said. “More and more people have built this into their holiday tradition.”

Visitors have asked for Brookgreen to continue the display between Christmas and New Year’s Day. The event relies on garden volunteers, many of whom aren’t available that week, Benso said. But this year, there will be a scaled-down version of the display from 6 to 9 p.m. on New Year’s Eve. Unlike the other nights, advance tickets are required. Those are available online at brookgreen.org.

Nights of a Thousand Candles starts at 3 p.m. each day, and Benso recommends people come early. That way they get to see the lights being lit and watch twilight tiptoe along the pathways. Traffic peaks around 7 p.m., although even on the record-breaking night the wait was only about 30 minutes.

“I can’t believe it’s already here,” Benso said.

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