It takes months for staff and volunteers to prepare The Elizabethan Gardens for the festive spectacle that is WinterLights.
In fact, one could say that Curnutte is to The Elizabethan Gardens as Santa Claus is to the North Pole.
When coming on board as executive director five years ago, Curnutte knew he wanted to bring holiday cheer to the gardens. He just wasn’t sure how. And he likens that first year to what he calls a “Charlie Brown” Christmas. “We put up a couple of little trees, I remember,” he says. “But that was about it.”
Five years later, WinterLights has become a holiday tradition among locals and visitors alike, drawing more than 5,000 guests of all ages to the gardens during an otherwise dormant time of year.
There are fire pits for roasting marshmallows, areas for live entertainment, a large movie screen showing holiday films and an ornately decorated Odom Hall that serves as Santa’s home base.
Planning for the 24-night affair takes months, and Curnutte literally has Christmas decorations stashed in every nook and cranny of the gardens. Prepping begins in August, when the staff starts hanging those first strings of lights on the Great Lawn.
Curnutte is quick to point out that while he may orchestrate the whole event, it takes staff, volunteers and “a whole village” to prep for WinterLights, which is one of the garden’s largest annual fundraisers. Sponsored by Southern Bank and the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau, WinterLights raised more than $25,000 for the gardens last year, and could bring in as much as $40,000 this year.
Charles Massey is one of the volunteers who helps decorate Odom Hall. On this November day, he and fellow helper Pat Siok are hanging ornaments and lights on more than a dozen trees in the hall. They are also taking special care in setting up Santa Claus, Norman Rockwell and snowman figurines donated by the public. Boxes upon boxes of garland, bows and other decorations surround them, just waiting to be unpacked.
“I had the chance to come to WinterLights last year and I just loved the way it looked,” Massey says as one of his reasons for volunteering. “Odom Hall looks like a huge department store in New York at this time of year, like Macy’s or Saks. And this is therapy for me. I never know how is going to be working, and it’s always fun.”
Massey says the eclectic collection of trees and decorations provide visual stimulation for guests. “Not everything is for everyone, but there is always something for everyone,” he says.
While he seems to have a knack for decorating, Massey says that no one knows or understands Christmas like Curnutte.
“Carl wants to share that with other people and is only limited by his imagination and the imagination of others,” he says. “And he has taken a time when the gardens are completely dormant and don’t really attract people and has made it the centerpiece of the year.”
Back out on the grounds, seasonal staff and volunteers are taking gingerbread-house pieces out of storage and piecing them together. The houses and other decorations need to be painted, touched up and freshened up with ribbons.
Numerous other chores need to be checked off the to-do list as WinterLights’ Grand Illumination nears, but like a puzzle, Curnutte says, it all seems to come together. “That’s why we start in August with the lights, because it takes that long to put it all together.”
Lights need to be tested as they are set up, bulbs need to be replaced and pathway lighting installed. No path is left undecorated, and Curnutte says they add something new to WinterLights every year. This year it is a display of blue lights in the Rose Garden. And there is still much to do.
Curnutte says it is fun to watch it all turn into something spectacular and beautiful.
“The thing I like most is seeing the kids as they walk through and watching their eyes light up with joy,” he says. “It’s just like a play. It’s great to see it all come together in the end.”