It all started with a trip to West Virginia. In 1990, a group of Charleston County Parks and Recreation staff from James Island County Park traveled to a light show in the town of Wheeling, West Virginia, bright eyed and following a dream. Soon, that dream came to life with the first ever Holiday Festival of Lights, premiering just a year after the park was devastated by Hurricane Hugo. This new event would change the landscape of the park for the rest of its future.
The festival’s very first 18 light displays were made by Bernie Pettit, a West Virginia designer who created the displays for the Wheeling light show. The following year, James Island County Park staff member and electronics ingénue Rich Raab used what he had learned from Mr. Pettit to design his own displays. In addition to creating some basic snowflake displays that are still sprinkled throughout the park, Rich’s first full display was the Santa display now depicted on the roof of the Park Center building.
As the years progressed, the number of light displays at the festival increased exponentially. With a title change to Light Show Supervisor, Rich’s full time job description became working on the festival year-round, along with a small crew. Rich’s imagination showed no limit, as he used greeting cards and coloring books to help spark his creativity for new display ideas.
How does it all happen? As most could imagine, creating a light display takes a lot of elbow grease and makes stapling strings of lights to your roof every year look like child’s play. Each light display took Rich between six and ten weeks to create. The process begins with creating an outline for the scene to be depicted in the display. Then, in Rich’s work shed, known fondly as “Santa’s Workshop,” the magic begins. Using self-made techniques, Rich projects the outline onto the floor of his workshop, where he traces it with chalk. Next, rebar is laid out along the tracing, and through a skilled process of soldering and bending, the rebar is molded into the depicted shape. The electronic genius then winds light bulbs and their powering cords around the rebar just so, creating the individual shape you see at the park today.
Many of the early light displays featured traditional colored light bulbs that stood static and did not blink or appear to move. As Rich’s imagination grew, so did the display technology. Soon, lights were blinking and light displays were literally sparkling and creating animated scenes throughout the park’s two mile route.
Soon, demand by families and festival-goers for seeing the displays up close and outside of their vehicle expanded the event. Santa’s Village and Winter Wonderland were created around the festival’s parking lots. In these areas, which expanded each year, visitors were able to see additional walk-through light display areas, peruse unique gift shops, visit with Santa Claus, hop on the festival train, roast marshmallows, sip hot chocolate, see a giant holiday sand sculpture, and even take a spin on the on-site carousel.
And the rest is, well, history.
Today, the Holiday Festival of Lights features more than 750 light displays, and the driving route through the festival is now a full three miles in length. All but 18 of these displays were created on site, by hand, by Rich Raab himself. Each year, numerous staff members and volunteers commit hundreds of hours to draping additional light strings known as “mini lights” along various areas of the park. The reason for these extra lights is to illuminate the entire environment and avoid having “dark” spots,” and also contribute to the unique look of the festival. Although it’s hard to get an exact count, the festival boasts an estimated two million lights overall!
This beautiful event requires a year round effort. In addition to the work that goes into creating a new display, many displays must be reconditioned each year, with each piece lasting about five years before refurbishment. The hundreds of displays are kept in 1,000 pieces within 28 trailers stored on site at James Island County Park, coming together again each year like a giant puzzle.
James Island County Park is located at 871 Riverland Drive, only a short drive from downtown. Hours are 5:30-10pm Sunday-Thursday and 5:30-11pm Friday & Saturday. Admission is $20 per car holding 15 people or less. For more information, call 843-795-4386 or visit www.ccprc.com.
The Holiday Festival of Lights:
By the Numbers
Visitors the festival attracted
its premiere year
Average number of visitors annually
Largest number of
visitors in one night (2012)
Number of light displays
the premiere year
Number of light displays today
Pieces of displays that come
together each year
Breakers used to power the displays
Miles of rebar used to create
the festival’s displays
Tons of sand in the annual
holiday sand sculpture
Height in feet of the
Ravenel Bridge display
Number of lights in the Oak Tree