A not so Secret Garden


Nobody does illuminated kitsch quite like the South. From the profusion of fiber optic religious art found at flea markets across the region to the ridiculous electric suits sported by rodeo heroes and country stars in the 1970s, we have been using light to symbolize our heavenly endeavors for decades. But when the usual plastic lawn reindeer and strings of blinking lights aren’t enough, savvy Southerners hightail it to Callaway Gardens, where, for 16 consecutive years, millions of lights are draped over several thousand acres of the gardens.

Set in the small town of Pine Mountain, Georgia, Callaway Gardens is an eco-friendly preserve founded by Cason and Virginia Callaway in the early 1950s. Intended initially to be a private version of the Garden of Eden, it quickly flourished into a utopia enjoyed en masse. The gardens opened officially to the public in 1952; trails and golf courses were added and eventually the gardens grew to a massive 13,000 acres.

Between November 16 and December 30, the gardens are set aglow with over eight million lights in the annual Fantasy in Lights display—a sound and light spectacular that has been called the brightest holiday light show in the South. Rambling across five miles of the gardens, this dazzling wonderland of themed scenes (no two are alike), Callaway and its Fantasy in Lights tell both secular and religious tales of the holiday season. “I think the gardens surprise people,” says Rachel Crumbley, corporate relations manager for Callaway Gardens. “You would be amazed at the number of adult groups, couples and even church groups that come with no children. We really are family-oriented; that is what is so exciting about Fantasy.”

Where lights don’t shine, flowers bloom, as holiday flora sprawls across the center of the gardens; the Fantasy itself is adorned with thousands of deep green and bright red poinsettias, paper-white narcissus and various hollies.

Perhaps the most stunning ele- ment of the holiday season at Callaway and the Fantasy In Lights is the Christmas Village, which lies inside. Open daily, the village is roughly 22,000 square feet of food and arts and crafts vendors, divided up further into a series of smaller, themed areas, including a “Land of the Nutcrackers” that sells almost anything imaginable relating to the eponymous ballet character; the “Ornament Forest” showcases a large selection of Christmas trees and the ornaments with which to adorn them. “Toyland” is a sprawling haven for nostalgic toys from Christmases past. The Georgia Crafters arena offers up cutesy custom gifts created by regional artisans.

Since Pine Mountain is just over three hours northwest of Savannah, consideration should be given to staying overnight in one of Callaway’s onsite lodges, such as the Callaway Gardens Inn, The Cottages and the Garden Villas. Nightly rates for onsite accommodations can range anywhere from $129 for a king inn room to $423 for a two-bedroom villa.

The twinkling welcome arches of Fantasy In Lights are surely a sight to behold; it is the mag- nitude of this illuminated tribute to the spirit of Christmas that evokes magically tacky yule delight. Between the music, the dazzling sea of light and the scent of fresh holly, the cynicism and stress that the holidays often invoke slip quickly away to reveal a renewed sense of peace and carefree pleasure.