Behind the Scenes at Brookgreen Gardens’ Nights of a Thousand Candles

By Leslie Moore

Behind the Scenes at Brookgreen Gardens’ Nights of a Thousand Candles

The holiday season brings many delights to our area, but one that has become a favorite tradition for locals and visitors is Brookgreen Gardens’ Nights of a Thousand Candles (NOTC). For nine nights in December the beautiful gardens are transformed into a magical fairyland of a half a million lights, more than 5,000 hand lit candles and a wide variety of holiday-themed entertainment. Months of work by hundreds of volunteers and the entire staff, from the CEO to restaurant dishwashers, go into creating an event that brings the joy of the season to thousands each year. “Even the people who answer our phones help by rolling lights and getting them ready for placement,” said Bob Jewell, President and CEO of Brookgreen Gardens.

Sasee was given a sneak peak behind the scenes of the 2014 Nights of a Thousand Candles, by Bob and Jon McGann, Horticultural Nights of a Thousand Candles Coordinator. Bob began by telling us about the beginnings of NOTC. “Nights of a Thousand Candles was started 15 years ago, but 10 years ago we expanded and stepped up the event, turning it into one of the Southeast’s premiere holiday events.” Bob’s vision has made NOTC the biggest fundraiser of the year for Brookgreen Gardens, a 501 (c) (3) non-profit. Visitors from around the country travel to Murrells Inlet to enjoy this holiday display. The first year of NOTC, 1,800 people attended, 2003 saw 7,200, and by 2013 that number had risen to 34,000.

Jon has been a member of the horticultural staff at the gardens for six years and spends nearly half of his year on this one event. Beginning in mid-September, he and fellow horticulturalists, Kelley Nash, Brad Fowler, Casey Cassleman and Jason Flynn start the process of bringing NOTC to life. When I asked Jon his favorite display, he immediately said, “Live Oak Allee.” The centuries old oaks are hung with 800 strings of lights that float down from the highest branches. This year, Jon is happy that all the lights in this area are LED – and that nearly three fourths of all the lights in NOTC have been transitioned to LED, saving energy and money for the gardens.

Each year the event is expanded and new displays are added. For 2014, an 80 foot China Fir in the arboretum will be covered with 65,000 white lights. Bob jokingly said he hoped low flying planes wouldn’t be misled! The fir took an entire week to complete and is the highest lights have ever gone. The tree will be visible from many areas of the gardens. Also, the Poetry Garden will be open this year and lit only with candles, giving a beautiful, tranquil feel to this recently refurbished garden.

All 5,000 plus candles are lit each night by staff and volunteers. “It only takes us about an hour,” said Jon. “We have it down to an art!” The candles floating in the many pools are anchored to the bottom to keep them steady. This year, over 500 pounds of cranberries will be floating along with the candles. “We’ve been experimenting for weeks,” said Jon. “And, so far, we’re very pleased with the results.”

The staff and volunteers are so busy making sure we all enjoy our visit, many times they forget to take the time to enjoy NOTC themselves. “I like to walk around as the gardens are closing,” said Bob. “And, I enjoy hearing people’s reactions – last year I saw a man propose. It was magical.” Jon agrees, saying, “I always take the time to sit quietly in Live Oak Alee and just look and listen to everyone having a good time. That’s what makes this all worthwhile.”

Visit Brookgreen Gardens during the Nights of a Thousand Candles on December 4-6, 11-13 and 18-20. Hours are 3-10 pm each night. New this year, Brookgreen has a free mobile app that will guide your visit with up to date information on entertainment schedules, food and drink locations plus much more. Download it in the App Store or on Google Play. Links to both are on the website, www.brookgreen.org.

About this writer

  • Leslie Moore Leslie Moore is the editor for Strand Media Group. A 25 year resident of Pawleys Island, she is blessed with a life filled with the love of family and friends and satisfying work to do every day.

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