Since 2011, the holidays have become even brighter at The Elizabethan Gardens. Beginning the day after Thanksgiving, the Elizabethan Gardens will transform into a holiday wonderland with the return of the annual Winter Lights. The event will extend through the holidays before ending in January.

“It’s the lights, sights and sounds of the holidays,” says Carl Curnutte, executive director at the gardens.

Preparations start three months in advance, and every inch of the botanical estate’s 10 acres is decorated. Lights are used to create scenes throughout the arboretum, creating an idyllic physical manifestation of the warm, cozy feelings associated with the winter holidays. More than a million lights glow, and laser lights illuminate the tops of the trees.

“Our halls, our greenhouses are decorated with trees,” says Curnutte. “We also have entertainment every Saturday night.In Odom Hall, there’s Santa Claus and village collections.”

The Great Lawn features a fire pit for roasting marshmallows. Hot chocolate is available to sip while large screen plays a constant loop of classic holiday animated specials. The gift shop is open for holiday shopping, and plant sales will be available for visitors still looking for holiday decor.

Naturally, Santa Claus comes to visit every weekend. For those wishing for even more time with Santa, tickets can be purchased for a Dinner with Santa on Saturday, Dec. 16.

The event is made possible by an estimated 80- to 90 volunteers and staff, some of who are specifically enlisted to help set up for Winter Lights.

“It really is the staff and the volunteers who make the event possible. We owe them a lot for helping us to make it all happen,” Curnutte says. “We encourage anybody who would like to volunteer to come and help. A lot of people get excited about it; it kicks off their holidays. It’s enjoyable to see them come and really participate and be part of it.”

Volunteer Charles Massey calls Winter Lights “a living, breathing organism.”

He points to the people as sources of the magic and creativity of the event. The coming together of volunteers and staff to make the event happen allows it to become deeply personal for those involved, Massey says.

“We all bring something different to it. It becomes a bit of a patchwork quilt,” Massey says. He gestures to fellow volunteer Gail Reynolds. “We had never met until this morning. Now, we are taking on a project because we both realize we’re folk art people, and now we’re creating a folk art tree. There will be a whole new tree because the two of us are working together,” Massey says. “That, to me, says ‘community’ faster than anything.”

With the volunteers and returning visitors in mind, The Elizabethan Gardens works hard to offer a different event every year. Even the video entertainment plays in a loop to prevent the same holiday special from being played at the same time throughout the week.

“We try to add new elements to it, so it doesn’t become the same old thing,” Curnutte says.

The ever-evolving technology also helps the metamorphosis of Winter Lights.

Since the event began in 2011, the available technology has advanced rapidly and, in the process, moved away from traditional incandescent bulbs to LED bulbs.

The cost-effective LED lights allow The Elizabethan Gardens to continue to grow their collection of lights without seeing a significant jump in electricity costs or a heavier drain on the infrastructure.

“We’re constantly trying to change up and add and put different elements.”

One thing is a constant: The sense of community and emphasis on joy.

“We really try to protect the patron that’s coming to get the best experience possible,” Curnutte says. “We’re still an outdoor event, so sometimes we have rain or moisture or things that will cause issue with us but those are the evenings when we close. We always post it on our website, if we are closed due to weather.”

The event kicks off on Friday, Nov. 24, with the Grand Illumination. The night serves as a chance for The Elizabethan Gardens to thank its patrons and supporters for making Winter Lights possible.

Initially a closed event, Grand Illumination is now open to the public, though tickets must be purchased to attend. Refreshments are provided as attendees get to witness the official turning on of the lights.

Other events pepper the weeks of Winter Lights.

  • On Saturday, Dec. 2, those who make reservations can attend a Deck the Halls with Christmas Greenery event to learn how to properly trim and care for greenery, so it lasts indoors for several weeks.
  • WOOFstocking takes place on Wednesday, Dec. 6. The first 100 guests get a free dog stocking to fill with gifts they can purchase from onsite vendors. Visitors who bring a donation to the Outer Banks SPCA will receive a discount on their Winter Lights tickets. WOOFstocking does not require previous reservations.

There also are wreath-making classes and a class on how to make festive centerpieces, a ladies night in the gift shop, and the do’s and don’ts on the care of poinsettias.

The classes are ticketed events and require advanced reservations.

When asked if he has a favorite part of Winter Lights, Curnutte is unable to pinpoint a specific aspect. “I like it all. Christmas is my favorite time of year, so I just think it’s a wonderful time. People just seem to be a little happier at Christmas,” he says.

“It’s just a great opportunity to be able to come and experience the season. I don’t think it is just one part for me, I think it’s the overall experience that makes it so spectacular: You get the music, and you get all the lights on and the decorated trees, and you get Santa Claus here. You add that to it, and it just makes for a wonderful experience.”

Massey credits Curnutte with delivering a gift to the community that keeps on giving.

“Carl took a period in the calendar where nothing was happening here. It was dead. Because of his vision, he brought all of this life back to (the garden),” Massey says waving his arms wide. “With all of that, came this fantasy, this re-imagining of the gardens. People coming here that never would have come, at a time they never would have come. So that, to me, is the most exciting thing.”

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