The Lights of St. James Island

We bumbled into an unforeseen event when we made our reservation for four nights in the St. James Island State Park Campground, just 15 minutes from downtown Charleston. When we made our reservation we were warned to arrive before 4:30–before the long lines of traffic backed up to see the Festival of Lights.

Not knowing what to expect, we imagined a couple dozen holiday light displays, then forgot about it, as we’d be arriving early afternoon. As we entered the State Park, we saw unlit rope-light outlines of toy soldiers, Holiday Greetings, sea creatures, and within sight of our camping spot, a couple dozen eight-foot flamingoes. Hmmm, hokey but fun.

The campground itself had inviting meandering roads and bike trails, with spacious screened sites. As we explored the park later that afternoon, we saw conference centers, a couple small lakes, a large dog park, a fishing area, and more unlit light displays, each with a sign naming its sponsor. As we were eating dinner in the Airstream, out the window the flamingo flock lit up in shades of orange and pink, standing in ‘water’ of indigo LEDs on spikes.

Our campsite with lit neighbors.

The family

Holiday music began to play, and at 5:30 a long procession of cars began slowly going by, stopping to shoot their phones at the display, with us as the background! Still hokey, but fun, I thought. The procession went on until after midnight. This is typical for weekend nights, only slightly less weeknights.

A campground host mentioned a minibus tour for campers at seven and we decided to take it. Hokey, but fun, I thought, as we climbed aboard. The driver told us about the man who began building these displays 22 years ago, who was still making new ones each year. It took two months to set this festival up before its opening in mid-November, and two months to tear it down after Jan 1. Some 600 displays and over 3 million light bulbs! As we slowly rolled along in the caravan of autos, true delight turned us into ooohing and ahhhing children.

A Southern Christmas

Gingerbread House

Fast Santa

Green Shoots

Falling, giant autumn leaves of light, forest floors strewn and spangled with thousands of tiny lights that shimmered behind the passing trees, leaping horses, tumbling gingerbread men, Santa golfing a hole in one across a wide field (with a convincing ball of light), leaping dolphins in the lake, Toyland, Candyland, Sealand, Nursery Rhymes, most with moving parts, made of clear or opaque rope lights, LEDs, tiny or large standard Christmas lights: most of these mounted on shaped and welded re-bar, supported on steel easels.

Driving the Festival of Lights

The Moon in the tree and Frosty

Frosty and Family

Arcades of lights periodically covered stretches of road, some static with icicle lights, some made of large color stars that gently faded in and out in the velvet darkness. The cumbersome structures of the day disappeared and only magical apparitions of light emerged around each bend in the lovely three-mile winding way.

Fire Engine

Sea Creatures


The Ark

The Charleston bridge

Afterward, we walked to Santa’s Village (across from the campground) where four, raised, marshmallow-toasting fires softly lit the happy families there.


Every possible tree was bedecked with lights or lit with spotlights. We checked out the gift-shops, the sweet-shop and a little railroad that carried its passengers along its own specially lighted route. We admired this year’s professionally done sand-sculpture.

The Annual Sand Sculpture

Hungry, we tracked down the ‘great hamburgers’ our driver had mentioned in the midway, finding them anything but, but enjoyed the giant rope-light ornaments that faded in and out in the dark, moss-draped trees above the picnic table. We looked across to a long wall of 8’ Christmas cards, decorated by local schools and non-profits, some dazzling, others disintegrating, all cheerful and homey.

People book 18 months in advance to camp here for this Festival! They come every year to help out and now I understand why. We later drove the long and amazing loop a couple more times ourselves; each time seeing more details, witticisms, clever choices of color, or texture of lights.

Live Oak with Spanish Moss draped in light

Apparently, this Festival costs $1,000 a day in electricity, but as one of the two revenue-producing campgrounds, supports all the other state parks in the S.C. system. Thousands of carloads of people come through, at $12 a car, and whole generations of children leave with vivid, happy memories of colorful, amazing pictures in the darkness of the Carolina Lowcountry.  And not a few grown-up children, too.

Now if they only had some snow…

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