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The Charleston Holiday Festival of Lights, located on James Island, is a cherished tradition that has been ranked on the Top 10 list. Each year, typically running through the months of November and December,  thousands flock to experience the three-mile ride of dazzling designs for the holidays. You can experience the Festival of Lights and explore Charleston, SC with us on our Historic South & Golden Isles Cruise

How and When did this Tradition Begin?

The Charleston Holiday Festival of Lights was originally planned with the trees of James Island County Park being the framework for the lights. However, in 1989, Hurricane Hugo destroyed 90% of the park’s trees and the focus switched to light displays. 

The first festival began in 1990, featuring only 18 light displays created by engineer Bernie Pettit in Wheeling, WV. That year, as many as 85,000 visitors drove along the festival’s over two-mile route, featuring the first animated display, a Jack-in-the-Box, programmed and operated by a computer.

After learning the craft, Rich Raab, a park-employed electrician and maintenance technician continued the tradition, with his first light display featuring “Santa on the Roof” at the Park Center. For over two and a half decades, he perfected the technique, building several displays and eventually becoming the festival’s Light Show Supervisor. Since that time, all displays have been constructed on-site by park staff.

Today, the festival features three miles of over 750 displays and approximately two million lights. The early light displays featured traditional colored light bulbs, but now they are created or refurbished with brighter and more energy-efficient LED lights. 

Preparing for the Festival

The Light Show crew works throughout the year to design, build, construct, and breakdown the beautiful festival, with just one light display taking between six to ten weeks to create.

Hundreds of people are needed annually to set up lights in the park and drive. These volunteers spend hundreds of hours draping lights on trees and bushes, so visitors have a fully illuminating experience. To power all of the displays, it takes 2,500 breakers and 40 transformers, plus a full hour to turn on and off the show each night. The festival’s displays encompass over 1,000 pieces that are stored within 28 trailers during the off-season. 

Lights and More!

Over the years the festival has evolved to offer the opportunity to park the car and walk through display areas to view the lights up close. Guests can also visit Santa’s Village, explore Winter Wonderland, hop on the festival train, peruse one-of-a-kind gift shops, sip hot chocolate, take a spin on a Victorian carousel, and see a giant holiday sand sculpture.

You can check out more of what Charleston, SC has to offer along with the rest of the Southeast Region on our Complete Southeast Cruise and East Coast Inland Passage Cruise for further adventure opportunities on your next river cruise.