Brookgreen Gardens’ Nights of a Thousand Candles: a labor of love
The magnificent display of holiday lights at Brookgreen Gardens, known as Nights of a Thousand Candles, doesn’t just happen overnight.
It takes Jon McGann, public exhibits production and logistics manager, his staff of eight, and dozens of NOTC associates about nine months to plan, create, install and then dismantle the more than 2,700 hand-lit candles, lanterns and nearly two million sparkling lights that cover the gardens on select nights in November and December.
“It is almost a year-round activity,” McGann said. “In the summer months, we are starting the behind-the-scenes projects, building, painting refurbishing and testing lights — things we don’t have time to do in the fall when we are setting up everything.”
Nights of a Thousand Candles, which will feature The Field of Light from the recent Bruce Munro Summer Lights exhibit as part of this year’s display, will be held on select nights from Friday, Nov. 27, to Thursday, Dec. 31, from 4-9 p.m. Admission for non-members is $25 for adults and $15 for children. Admission for members is $20 for adults and $12 for children. Tickets can be ordered online and must be purchased in advance.
The event also features The Strolling Bagpipers, roaming the gardens every evening. In the performance tent, there will be live musical entertainment including the Beach Brass Quintet, Painted Man, the Paul Grimshaw Band, harpist Rebecca Nissen, the Randy McQuade Band, the Palmetto Bronze Handbell Ensemble, Raglan Road, and The 100 Grand Band.
McGann, who is originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has worked at Brookgreen Gardens for 13 years, starting in the horticulture department. He has been involved with NOTC for the last seven years and has been in charge of the light displays for three years.
“It is very gratifying to see all of the attendance and the visitors’ reactions to seeing our light displays,” he said. “I enjoy seeing people come in for the first time and hearing their conversations. They usually say they would like to find out how things were done, how long it took, and whether they could do it at home.”
NOTC has also garnered national attention, recently being nominated in a USA Today/10 Best contest for best holiday light show.
McGann said the key to creating the displays year after year is how everything is stored the previous year.
“It is how we put stuff away, how it is organized and labeled that makes it possible to set it up the next year,” he said. “We really take our time in January and February so when we go back in September, everything is labeled and ready to go.”
He said the biggest challenge is often the weather.
“Weather can really make or break our day or week,” McGann said. “If we get into a rainy stretch, that can really hold us up.”
Thankfully this year has provided decent weather when the Brookgreen staff needed it, with no named storms or hurricanes coming to this area.
“This is the first fall in five or six years that we didn’t have a big storm,” he said. “That is very helpful.”
Another challenge is the wildlife at the park, including squirrels, raccoons and opossums which sometimes chew on the wires and Christmas lights, McGann said.
He said he usually has six bucket lifts going in the fall, with people painstakingly wrapping the lights around each branch of the large oak trees in the gardens. He added that they do something different and new every year. This year, one of the new displays features dozens of nylon lanterns in a variety of colors draped in the trees along a path that is usually dark.
“It turned out really well and has a whole color scheme, a progression through the color spectrum,” he said.
McGann commends his team for working well together and sharing their creativity.
“There is a lot going on and a lot to coordinate and organize,” he said. “We also get help from tour guides and a wide range of other departments throughout Brookgreen Gardens. To see it all come together is amazing!”
People on McGann’s team were recently making the finishing touches on displays, getting ready for the tens of thousands of people who will come to see the display. David Adamson, an NOTC associate who was hanging a lantern from a line between trees, said this was his first year helping with the event.
“I’ve always loved Brookgreen Gardens,” he said. “I especially liked helping with the lights streaming from the tree branches in the Live Oak Alee.”
Mikaela Groomes, a public exhibits associate who was working with Adamson, agreed, but added that her favorite display is in the Children’s Garden.
“The Children’s Garden is pretty cool because it has a lot of different colors,” she said. “It is always fun to walk through and you kind of get to use your creativity there.”
Anne Harris, another NOTC associate, was working with Jamie Williams, a horticulturalist, to hang garland above an underpass in the gardens. They are both in their second year of helping with the event.
“I like being on a lift in a big oak,” Harris said when asked her favorite part of the setup. “It is amazing and very peaceful. We are just enhancing the natural beauty of the tree with lights.”
Williams said her favorite part is preparing the pools featuring sculpture. She and others suit up in water-proof waders and walk into the pools to do their jobs.
“I love putting on the waders and getting in the pools to light the candles,” she said. “Then I love seeing it all lit up.”
Lillian Webb, public exhibit supervisor, has been working with McGann for five years. She said she really likes being part of the team. She said this year’s display looks different than any other year.
“My favorite part this year is the Palmetto Garden because of the colors,” she said. “I really like the blending of the gardens. Each garden compliments the next.”
The NOTC event at Brookgreen Gardens was recently nominated for the second year in a row for the USA Today Best of the Holidays contest, in the Best Botanical Garden Holiday Lights category. It was first nominated in 2019 when it placed 4th.
To show support for this popular holiday event, the public can vote for Brookgreen Gardens once per day until polls close on Monday, December 7, at noon ET. The 10 winning gardens will be announced on USA Today10Best on Friday, December 18 in plenty of time for Christmas. To vote, use this link: https://www.10best.com/awards/travel/best-botanical-garden-holiday-lights/nights-of-a-thousand-candles-brookgreen-gardens-murrells-inlet-s-c/
For more information about Brookgreen Gardens, visit www.brookgreen.org, or call 843-235-6000. For information about the event, go to: https://www.brookgreen.org/events/nights-thousand-candles-2020
By Clayton Stairs/tourism manager for the Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce