By Mary Ellen Riddle, The Outer Banks Voice
A massive live oak is bathed in a glowing red light. Believed to be over 400 years old, the tree is one of many of nature’s glories graced with holiday lights at the Elizabethan Gardens this season. The light switch was on flipped Nov. 17, and the gardens illuminated as part of the annual Winter Lights attraction. Drawing thousands of visitors, the presentation takes a lot of planning and work by a small crew of employees and volunteers.
“I’m filled with gratitude every day for our small team and what they accomplish, and to be able to put on an event like this is so much work,” says Executive Director Theresa Armendarez.
Celebrating its 14th year, Winter Lights has undergone a process of honing and tweaking on a regular basis.
The Gardens have made advances including upgrading their Wi-Fi. They now have an app that can help them turn off lights by using a phone. A grant from the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau helped finance the purchase of weatherproof, commercial grade lights. They were also able to put in a new sound system, as a result. Inspiring classical music adds to the Winter Lights experience.
The LED lights, which help keep the cost down, glow in a variety of colors and cover the artistically designed gardens. For Gardens Manager Dan Hossack, who has a background in science, forest health initiatives, and art and history of landscape design, his work is about not attempting to control nature, but to encourage order from natural systems.
“As we find our place in these systems, we become closer to our work and to the people with whom we share the Elizabethan Gardens,” says Hossack. “Nature provides openings. And our best interest is to fit in when possible.”
December blooms include camellias, azaleas, pansies, johnny jump-ups, salvia and Japanese fatsia. From knee high shrubs to the towering ancient oak, visitors are surrounded by a seasonal wonderland that has viewers eyes glowing, as well.
Folks of all ages will appreciate the new children’s garden created by Programs Manager Laura Hensley with help from volunteers. It dazzles with lots of twinkly lights, bright colors, and cutouts of fauna.
“People just love it,” says Armendarez. “Being able to see the trees, being able to see the gardens in a new way that really makes it maybe impactful in a way that people didn’t see before.”
Because last year’s planning started early – and it was Armendarez’s first year doing Winter Lights, they had a series of meetings starting in May. This gave them a big jump start this year. Setup began in September to be ready for their Nov. 17 opening.
The Gardens hosted a Virginia Dare Night on Nov. 19. Admission was free with a donation of canned goods to the Roanoke Island Food Pantry. “They collected about 900 pounds of food,” says Armendarez.
As if Winter Lights is not enough of a moving experience this season at the Elizabethan Gardens, Armendarez came up with a new idea that was launched in the Gardens Odom Hall.
The hall is filled with decorated Christmas trees. The gathering of 13 trees represents 13 local nonprofit organizations who wanted to participate in the festivities. Each is decorated to showcase what the groups represent. And each bears information on how the viewer can donate to the cause.
The non-profits represented include The Lost Colony, Lily’s Camp, Beach Food Pantry, Community Care Clinic of Dare, SPCA, OBX Room at the Inn, Crossroads OBX, Outer Banks Relief Foundation, Coastal Humane Society, NC Aquarium Society, Children and Youth Partnership, Roanoke Island Food Pantry, and Hotline.
Dan Hossack and Theresa Armendarez standing at the Hotline tree. (Photo credit: Mary Ellen Riddle)
The Hotline tree was created by floral artist Nancy Harvey of Holiday House Weddings and Events with assistance from staff and volunteers. It is adorned with 59 angels that represent the number of people in North Carolina who died in 2023 from domestic abuse. Hotline created the wooden angels that adorn the tree, says Harvey.
The tree represents a towering, winged angel. Harvey carefully studied the symbolism of color and materials before choosing her design approach. The angel is dressed in an Elizabethan style gown, which works well for its setting at the Elizabethan Gardens. The colors she used, purple and white, are the colors of domestic abuse. “It’s a very sad tree in a lot of ways,” says Harvey. But she discovered that purple also symbolizes creativity, wisdom, peace and magic and white means purity and innocence given that a number of the victims represented on the tree are children. The tree’s lavender poinsettias point to a Christmassy kind of joy and cheer to Harvey. They uplift the spirit and bring a sense of hope.
Harvey choked up when talking about finally putting the little angels on the tree. “So, to me, I was hoping that the wisdom, you know, of the purple, that maybe we could find the wisdom to find peace in our homes, protect the innocent and bring joy to others.”
Winter Lights will be up through December 30, 6-9 p.m. Check elizabethangardens.org for days the Winter Lights are open for viewing, and ticket prices, shuttle info, and tips on parking.