For many of us, nothing symbolizes the joy of the holidays more than the lights we use to string around our Christmas trees and light up our indoor and outdoor living spaces. Communities throughout the state, too, commemorate the season from Blowing Rock to Wilmington with colorful light shows and displays brightening up our neighborhoods, town and city centers, and shopping areas.
Traditions of Christmas Trees and Indoor / Outdoor Holiday Lighting
Evergreens have been used as a symbol of life throughout history. Early Romans, for instance, used tree branches in their homes during the long winter months in anticipation of the growing season to come. The custom spread over time, and soon northern Europeans were using evergreens in their houses to celebrate winter Solstice and, later during the Renaissance period, to commemorate Christmas. Many believe that the use of a “paradise tree” – a symbol of Adam and Eve’s Garden of Eden – in medieval plays, depicting the link between the Nativity and the story of the creation, was the first time an evergreen was actually used as a true symbol of the Christian holiday. The first instance of a song about a Christmas tree in recorded history, of course, was in Germany; “O Tannenbaum,” a holiday favorite, was composed around 1550, kicking off the European tradition of celebrating the holiday by decorating an indoor tree.
Moravian immigrants brought their beloved German Christmas traditions with them to America in the early 1800s, which included setting up Christmas trees in their homes and decorating them with ornaments and wax candles. While Thomas Edison first used electric lights outdoors in 1880, two short years later Edward Johnson, his cohort, displayed the very first tree illuminated by electric lighting in his parlor, and by 1895 the first electrically-lit White House tree debuted. General Electric started selling tree lights to the public in 1903, and soon the market for holiday lights exploded. During the 1940s and 1950s, the practice of decorating the Christmas tree, house and yard became widespread as a period of post-World War II economic prosperity took over and department store displays became more colorful and complex, inspiring the more elaborate use of lighting at home.
- Wake Forest’s amazing – and free – 70-acre Piper Lights display is a family-run property and kids’ favorite, featuring a Santa train and visits with the one-and-only four nights a week from 7-9 pm.
- The Charlotte Motor Speedway comes even more alive during the holiday season as it decorates with more than 3 million lights and provides a Christmas Village with petting zoo, hot chocolate, holiday movie nights and popular “s’more” station. A horse-drawn sleigh ride around the track offers a special Speedway touch.
- Blowing Rock’s Chetola resort puts up lights around its beautiful lake as part of the annual Festival of Lights; displays are best viewed by car but can also be admired by foot. In addition, the town of Blowing Rock has its own lovely tree as part of its Christmas in the Park Celebration, which includes several Santa visits and traditional caroling.
- The tiny town of McAdenville, NC is in the spotlight during the holidays with its renowned Christmas Town USA light display that include a two-mile drive or walk from brightly lit downtown through a colorfully decorated residential area. Over 600,000 visitors visit annually, enjoying the community where virtually every home is decorated and on vivid display.
- Benson’s Meadow Lights’ 10 acres of lighted displays are designed to depict the true meaning of Christmas: the life of Jesus. View the lights by car or train, ride the carousel, and enjoy visits with Santa. The town’s Christmas on Main also includes an annual tree lighting and parade.
Carolina Coastal Celebrations
- Manteo’s lovely Winterlights at Elizabethan Gardens includes displays using flowers and other natural elements as well as a wonderland of festively-lit trees, shrubs and buildings. An open-air bonfire warms visitors on the magnificent Great Lawn.
- In Wilmington, the Christmas Train & Light Spectacular takes place at the Train Museum, where kids can hear readings of the popular “Polar Express” and everyone enjoys browsing the museum’s 20,000 holiday lights and animations.
- Past winner of The Today Show’s annual nationwide holiday lights competition, one of the most impressive lights displays in the Outer Banks is the annual Poulos Family Christmas Lights Display. Besides multiple colorful light scenes, the property also features a popular model train and toy display.
The Best of the Best Mountain Displays
- The Biltmore Estate’s Biltmore Christmas, in Asheville, is a spectacular celebration of lights, decorations, Christmas trees and colorful flowers throughout the property. Listen to carolers in Antler Hill Village, decorate ornaments at The Inn or cookies at the Village Hotel, and enjoy special illuminated landscapes at Antler Hill Village & Winery.
- Forest City’s holiday display includes hay rides, carriage rides, ice-skating, holiday movies, a children’s train and Santa visits. Santa Paws is on hand to take pictures with your beloved pet on Sundays.
- Asheville’s Winter Lights at the North Carolina Arboretum features 3 acres of colorfully-lit gardens and landscapes, animated displays, holiday music, and a traditional model train exhibit.