Charleston’s Holiday Festival of Lights: Behind the Scenes
The Charleston Holiday Festival of Lights is one of the city’s beloved holiday occasions. Each holiday season at James Island County Park, guests flock to drive through approximately 2 million lights. The 2019 30th annual Holiday Festival of Lights is open November 15- December 31.
Admission, Hours and Other Helpful Information
Hosted by the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission, the festival is a three-mile driving tour, with options to walk around at the end. The festival is held at James Island County Park, rain or shine. Hours are 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m Sunday-Thursday and Friday and Saturday hours are 5:30 p.m-11 p.m.
For 1-to-15 guests, admission is $20 per vehicle. With a donation of canned or pet food, admission is only $15 per vehicle Monday-Thursday. 16-30 guests are $40 Monday through Thursday, $50 Friday through Sunday and 31 or more guests admission is $100 Monday through Thursday, $150 Friday-Sunday.
Don’t miss St. Nick while you’re at Charleston’s Holiday Festival of Lights. Santa Claus will be in town on November 27-December 23. Visit Santa’s village to roast marshmallows, take photos and ride on the carousel. Greeting cards designed by local students will be on view in Santa’s workshop. On certain nights, Mrs. Claus and carolers will also be in the village. Other entertainment includes storytelling and live music. Be sure to stop and see Santa Claus while at Charleston’s Holiday Festival of Lights!
Charleston Holiday Festival of Lights Highlights and Shopping
After you’ve meandered down the lighted drive, get out of your car to check out the family attractions and other highlights. The festival of lights will feature festival train rides, a climbing wall, gift shops including Prancer’s Presents, Carousel, Santa’s Sweet Shoppe and concessions, the Enchanted Walking Trail and the Amazing Dancing Lights Display.
Looking for a different type of white Christmas? Winter Wonderland is the area’s largest holiday sand sculpture. This dramatic display is made from 50 tons of sand.
If you’re feeling delayed on purchasing stocking stuffers and Christmas goodies, get your Christmas shopping done at the gift shops. Treats like ornaments, toys, personalized items and stocking stuffers await diligent shoppers.
Yoga at the Festival of Lights
Get ready to flow under the lights! The meadow at Santa’s Village will be the site of an outdoor yoga class on November 20. All fitness levels are welcome to experience Starlight Yoga. Instructor Ji Hwang will lead students from 6:30-7:30 p.m. in a flow that is fun and accessible. Additional attendants will be on-site to ensure safety. Registration will be online, it’s $5 for advance registration and $8 for day-of registration. Separate gate admission also applies.
History and Behind the Scenes of the Festival of Lights
The Charleston Holiday Festival of Lights is a longstanding Charleston tradition. The lights festival began in 1990 when an engineer from West Virginia, Bernie Pettit, created 18 lighted displays. Rich Raab, a park-employed electrician and maintenance technician started creating lighted displays. Raab still supervises and builds the bulk of the light show today!
New light displays are shown each year and the festival features house-made displays, many of which use LED lights for brightness and energy-savings. Each presentation takes up to ten weeks to create, most are created in six to ten weeks.
Preparing the festival is a year-long commitment. The building, refurbishing and planning of the light show is no small undertaking. Raab makes each light display by hand. In his shed, called “Santa’s Workshop,” he projects the design onto the floor. Next, the design is traced with chalk and laid with rebar. The rebar is soldered and bent into the desired shape. Lights are then wrapped around each bar by attaching the power cord. And voila, it’s the lighted snowman or Ravenel Bridge you see on your drive.
Raab also refurbishes any displays as needed. Each piece is checked annually and is reconditioned. On average, light displays are refurbished every five years.
The show would not be possible without the volunteers dedicated to its completion. Hundreds of people volunteer annually to drape light strings along the entire route of the drive. The goal is to add lights to all parts of the park and drive. Volunteers spend hundreds of hours draping lights on trees and bushes so visitors have a fully illuminating experience.
Who makes sure the lights stay on? Campground hosts are also crucial to the Charleston Holiday Festival of Lights. The James Island County Park also hosts an RV campground. 36 people reunite annually in Charleston to volunteer at the Holiday Festival. They monitor and replace over 100,000 light bulbs each year and help with other important tasks during the festival. And at the end, 1,000 pieces are broken down and put into 28 trailers that are stored on-site. And then the light show work begins again.
The dedication and commitment from the community are enough to fill you with the holiday spirit. More than 2 million people have visited the Charleston Holiday Festival of Lights since its inception. Make sure you’re one of them this holiday season.
Calendar Highlights from the Charleston Holiday Festival of Lights
Meet and Greet with The Snow Queen: November 22, 7 – 9 p.m.
Storytelling by Mrs. Claus: December 1, 3, 10, 17, 20, 22 & 23, 6 – 10 p.m.
Ask a Naturalist: November 21, December 5, 6, 19, 20, 6 p.m.
New Year’s Eve Fireworks: December 31, 9 p.m.