Nights of a Thousand Candles blows out its 20th at Brookgreen Gardens

By Terry Massey ˙ December 5, 2019

The Live Oak Allee is one of the most scenic spots in the gardens during Nights of a Thousand Candles.


Celebrating its 20th anniversary, Brookgreen Garden’s “Nights of a Thousand Candles” is closing in on another mathematical milestone, one that might one day warrant a name change.

“We’re rapidly approaching a million total lights,” said public exhibitions and logistic manager Jon McGann, who is responsible for coordinating – and apparently tabulating – for Brookgreen Garden’s annual holiday festival. “It’s gotten bigger every year since I’ve been here (in 2009), and it’s been a long time since we were anywhere near a thousand.”

But who’s counting? Certainly not the thousands of visitors who take in the scenic beauty of the botanical sculpture garden aglow in brilliant light displays and adorned in colorful holiday decor. The popular event runs 3-10 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays (Dec. 5-21), followed by an encore presentation at the Light Up the New Year festival (Dec. 27-28, 31).

“We’ve added dates to give more people a chance to see it,” McGann said. “Lots of people come back every year and more are finding out about it, so it’s a good problem to have.”

The 80-foot Chinese fir serves as Brookgreen Gardens’ official Christmas tree.

The Days Before the `Nights’

While many have witnessed the Nights of a Thousand Candles program over the past two decades, few have seen the monumental effort that goes into staging the annual holiday event.

“We actually started getting ready for it right after the Fourth of July,” McGann said. “It takes a lot of people, staff and volunteers, working long hours to make it happen.”

McGann and his crew have spent the past five months unpacking and preparing decorations, assembling and wiring light displays and countless other details that go unnoticed to guests.

“I wish people could see all the behind-the-scenes work that goes into it,” McGann said. “It’s not exciting to watch, but it’s very important. We’ve learned a lot over the years and we have a good system. There are a lot of moving parts that have to come together just right and at the right time.”

McGann points out the 80-foot Chinese fir that serves as the official Christmas tree at Brookgreen Gardens. He said it took four workers four days and a boom lift to decorate it.

The day before Nights of a Thousand Candles was surprisingly calm, with all the advance work checked off the list. But it was the calm before the storm for the keepers of the flame.

The Diana Pool is one of several exhibits featuring floating candles at Brookgreen Gardens.

Showtime at The Garden

For all the early preparations, it’s the game-day execution that guests come to see. Brookgreen’s team springs into action to spark the 2,800-plus hand-lit candles just before opening, then scrambles to keep them illuminated despite unpredictable wintry weather. Through rain and cold and wind and fog, McGann’s crew literally has “candle management” down to a science.

“Weather plays a major role in how busy we are going to be; rain and candles don’t mix,” said McGann, explaining how his team uses different sizes and types of candles based on the evening’s forecasted conditions. “Candle management is tricky. Our goal is to keep them burning for the guests, and I think some of them get a kick out of watching us run around relighting.”

The most challenging task involves the floating candles on the pools and fountains in the gardens, often forcing workers to climb into the water to retrieve and relight a snuffed flame. McGann and his team have mastered the craft of keeping floating candles ablaze (a basic fish bowl covered with Saran Wrap) and in place (each bowl is tied to a brick at the bottom).

This year’s job of keeping the fires burning will be a bit easier due to a new electrical lighting system illuminating the walkways. In the past, the candle boxes lining the winding paths were hand-lit candles, creating potential safety issues when weather caused mass outages. The electric-powered replacements look the same as the candles but give off more light.

It’s one of the new things visitors can expect to see at this year’s Nights of a Thousand Candles. But if you’ve never seen it before, everything is new and mind-blowingly beautiful.

More than 500 pounds of cranberries fill the Brown Sculpture Court pool.


Behind-the-Scenes Highlights

If you are a first-timer at Nights of a Thousand Candles or just want to make sure you catch all the highlights, here are a few inside-the-ropes tips to soaking in the holiday spirit:

* Arrive on time if you want to see a true spectacle – the nightly lighting of the aforementioned Chinese fir. Leave time for parking and catching the shuttle as workers flip the switch on the Christmas tree shortly after sunset (approximately 6:15 p.m.) to signal the start of the festivities. This year’s tree features new decorations, including 42,000 lights.

* One recipe for creating the Christmas spirit involves ordering 500 pounds of cranberries (that’s about 220,000 total berries) from Wisconsin and pouring them into a pool of water. The Brown Sculpture Court is the site of the bright-red, jumbo-sized cranberry cocktail, surrounded by lights and artwork. It also offers a nice break from the breeze on windy nights.

* My personal favorite, day or night, is the Live Oak Allee, a row of sprawling, 250-year-old live oak trees draped with Spanish moss and more than 130,000 lights, at least during NOTC. Strands of white lights illuminate the twisting branches and sagging moss, casting mysterious shadows over the brick walls and walkways.

* Cameras can’t do justice to the aesthetic beauty of Brookgreen Gardens during Nights of a Thousand Candles, and they certainly can’t capture the spirit of the event. Other activities that are sure to give even the biggest scrooge a bad case of the Christmas spirit include live music, caroling and refreshments like hot cider and cocoa for recharging.

Try taking mental pictures to make lasting memories. After all, there are nearly 1 million lights, and you don’t want to miss a single one.

What: Nights of a Thousand Candles
When: 3-10 p.m., Thursdays-Sundays, Dec. 5-21
Where: Brookgreen Gardens, 1931 Brookgreen Drive, Murrells Inlet, SC
Admission: Members ($20 adults, $12 children), Non-members ($25 adults, $15 children)
Tickets: Reserve through