How Winter Lights at the North Carolina Arboretum Welcomes the Holiday Season
Imagine a majestic mountainside star-studded with a brilliant display of holiday lights, the smell of hot cocoa flavoring the crisp mountain air. It’s enough to make you break into a spontaneous rendition of “Let It Snow” – and snow, it might, if your luck is just right.
The North Carolina Arboretum is a 400-acre public garden created in 1986 from a desire to “cultivate connections between people and plants.” Tucked within the Pisgah National Forest, it offers the perfect stage for holiday festivity, bringing a bright beacon of cheer to the raw beauty of the mountains.
Winter Lights is one of the newest holiday displays in North Carolina. While in the brainstorming stage, the powers-that-be consulted with a former Disney lighting expert as well as other gardens across the country. After two years of planning, Winter Lights opened in 2014. According to Whitney Smith, marketing and public relations manager of the Arboretum, it is already a community favorite, hosting more than 35,000 visitors a year.
“Every mountain season has its own special charm, although the warmer temperatures and foliage of spring, summer and fall offer a natural advantage,” Smith says. “Winter, though, displays a unique palette of color, form and transparency. Winter Lights is designed to highlight the beautiful shapes and designs found in the Arboretum’s gardens during the winter. In addition, the LED lights used in the displays create a stunning contrast against the dark mountain sky. It is truly a magical experience.”
Winter Lights fulfills a twofold purpose: to celebrate the beauty of Western North Carolina, and increase visitation to the Arboretum during its nonpeak season.
Meander along the 3 acres dedicated to Winter Lights and find yourself dazzled by a collection of holiday lighting that even Clark Griswold, the king of “exterior illumination,” would find enviable. Fan favorites include the Dream Quilt, an animated quilt garden; the Tree of Light, a 50-foot animated tree; and Storytime at Woodland Cove, an animatronic children’s program. Throughout the exhibit, you will find vivid LED lights that are shaped, clustered and molded into artistic creations that woo the eyes and wow the heart.
Sharon Jackson, a Charlotte native, visited Winter Lights the weekend before Thanksgiving 2017 along with her husband, Stephen. The couple was in town visiting a nearby bed-and-breakfast and decided to visit the lights on a whim. Jackson fell in love with the exhibit.
“I have one word for you: cold!” Jackson says of her experience, laughing. “But I loved it. Winter Lights evoked kid-like wonder, with colors and music and nostalgia that warmed my soul.”
Smith says that temperatures in the area can vary greatly in the month of December; likewise, visitors should come prepared to bundle up. “In years past, we’ve had some nights around 50 to 60 degrees, and others below freezing,” she says. “I’d say, on average, the evenings are around 40 degrees. December isn’t usually snowy in Asheville. However, we did get a major snowstorm last year, which made the lights glisten beautifully!”
It doesn’t have to be merry outside to enjoy the Arboretum, which is home to a diverse collection of cultivated gardens. The Cliff and Betty Dickinson Holly Garden spotlights the wide variety of hollies, both native and non-native, that can be grown in the Southern Appalachian region. The Quilt Garden, a botanical collection of quilt squares, is a visual reminder of the significance quilting has played historically in the area. In warmer months, enjoy a stroll through the National Native Azalea Collection and the Plants of Promise Garden, or experience a spectacular view at the Forest Meadow.
As for Winter Lights, the annual treat for the eyes celebrates its fifth anniversary this holiday season. In-house lighting experts handle the design and setup, with the decorating beginning each September. For 2018, the Arboretum has partnered with the City of Asheville to create a Winter Lights Downtown display in Asheville’s Pack Square Park.
“Winter Lights has grown to become Asheville’s brightest holiday tradition,” Smith concludes. “It is truly a magical experience that people of all ages – from grandparents to toddlers – can enjoy. There is something for everyone to discover.”
If You Go...
The North Carolina Arboretum
100 Frederick Law Olmsted Way, Asheville, NC 28806
Hours: Nov. 16 through Dec. 31, from 6 to 10 p.m.
Price: $18 for adults, $12 for kids (ages 5-11) and free for children ages 4 and under. Members receive $2 off each ticket. Ask about specials on Tuesdays.
– Karsen Price