VanDusen and Butchart Gardens bring light to Yuletide celebrations

December 1, 2016


Life-size storybook-themed mannequins like Little Miss Muffet twirl around a stage in Victoria’s Butchart Gardens’ holiday display.

ACCESS: The VanDusen Botanical Garden’s Festival of Lights runs from December 1 to January 2 and is open daily except December 25 from 4:30 to 9 p.m. The Butchart Gardens are located in Brentwood Bay, 23 kilometres north of Victoria and 20 kilometres south of B.C. Ferries’ Swartz Bay terminal. The Magic of Christmas runs through January 6. More information on Butchart Gardens is included in our travel guide Best Weekend Getaways from Vancouver.

The calendar may be divided into four seasons, but as most celebrants know, Christmas is a fifth season all its own—a time of inner reflection that basks in the uplifting prospect of renewal.

Although nature may be throttling back on growth for the next few months, at least the sun begins to strengthen and days lengthen in response.

As a way of celebrating the winter solstice, former VanDusen Botanical Garden director Harry Jongerden gloried in the annual Festival of Lights mounted by his staff.

“People look at me quizzically when I say lighting up plants is a good way to enhance nature,” he told us. “Yet this is the time of year when plants tend to get ignored. To decorate them with lights is to be reminded of their abiding presence.”

After an eight-year stint as head gardener at the Stratford Festival in Ontario earlier in his career, Jongerden admitted he has a background of sorts in show business.

Yet VanDusen was his first experience with light shows.

“I arrived to discover this is a big event that brings in sufficient revenue to support the garden year-round.”

Jongerden pointed out that Stanley Park’s yearly Bright Nights event is put on by members of the B.C. Professional Fire Fighters Association Burn Fund, and VanDusen’s festival is the only such civic affair entirely staged by Vancouver park board employees.

“It gives staff the chance to display the artistic talent of gardeners while at the same time heightening the garden’s reputation with the public.”

As much as the Festival of Lights appeals primarily to families, Jongerden observed that the month-long gala is just as much a couples’ activity.

“It’s a date night. I saw an awful lot of visitors strolling hand in hand.”

With the wintry romance of Christmas in the air, VanDusen’s team of garden elves lobbied Jongerden to add more variety to the festival’s Dancing Lights musical presentation.

To that end, tunes with “a jazzy, dreamy feel” now accompany one of the twice-hourly performances of choreographed lights centred on Livingstone Lake.

And such lights!

The saturation of colours is an enchanting display that not only enrobes bushes and tree branches but also fires up drifts of ornamental glass tulips that glow defiantly with the prospect of spring.

The cumulative effect is magical enough to cleanse even the most die-hard skeptic of humbug.

Once the high-octane advent of Christmas crescendoes, take time to bask in the afterglow.

Tradition prescribes a well-earned break.

In the Middle Ages, the 12 days of Christmastide were ones of continuous feasting and merrymaking.

Much like VanDusen, Victoria’s Butchart Gardens do their best to sustain the Yuletide enchantment as long as possible.

Over the past two decades, the privately owned, family-operated garden has mounted the Magic of Christmas, with displays of storybook-themed mannequins throughout much of the 22-hectare property.

The garden’s recently-retired public-relations director, Graham Bell,  said that “next to the late-spring-to-early-fall season, the month-long celebration is the second-biggest blip on our radar. The amount of preparation is massive. In June, we start making the bows that we use to dress up the trees. By October, while the gardeners are planting bulbs, we’re stringing lights and suspending the big glass balls at the entrance.”

Given that many of the displays are mounted in the garden’s lakes and ponds, an early start to preparations before ice forms is a must.

When it comes to lights, few displays outperform VanDusen’s intensity.

By the same token, Butchart’s amusing decorations are presented on a scale unmatched elsewhere.

As visitors stroll along pathways that lead through sheltering forests and old quarries similar to those in Vancouver’s Queen Elizabeth Park, larger-than-life tableaux modelled on images from the carol

“The Twelve Days of Christmas” appear.

The more familiar you are with the lyrics, the quicker you’ll pick up on the humour.

For example, three French hens sip espresso in a café.

Farther along, four toucans perched on spreading branches make calls on mobile phones.

You get the picture.

Entirely unexpected are the nine life-size—and lifelike—dancing feminine figurines lifted from the pages of children’s storybooks, such as Cinderella, Little Miss Muffet, and Snow White, who twirl around an outdoor stage mounted beside a towering sequoia grove.

In the midst of the seasonal displays is an equally enthralling menagerie of 30 carved wooden animals mounted on the Rose Carousel.

Watching bears, horses, orcas, and ostriches circle inside the domed Children’s Pavilion is enough to trigger a dizzy spell.

Step outside for some fresh air, where the aromatic scent of cedars further enhances the esprit de Noël.

Yet after making the rounds of the garden, don’t be surprised if you have a nagging sense of having missed something.

Where are the 12 drummers drumming?

As you head home from this land of make-believe, look up.

There stand a dozen toy soldiers beating out a mute tattoo among the stars.

And to all a good night.

Text CR Jack Christie
Photo CR Louise Christie