It’s the season of traditions, and one of the most-enduring rituals for the people of West Columbia is the “Lights Before Christmas” at Riverbanks Zoo.
West Columbia has a bond to the zoo because of the entrance to the zoo’s Botanical Gardens off of Sunsest Boulevard in West Columbia. The the Lights Before Christmas, one of the area’s longest running holiday traditions, strengthens those ties.
Sponsored by BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina the “Lights” begin in November, and run until Dec. 30.
Many West Columbia residents have made a trip to see the Lights Before Christmas a part of their must-do list.
“The Lights Before Christmas have become a tradition for our family,” City of West Columbia public information officer Anna Huffman. She lives just blocks from the zoo’s West Columbia entrance. “We usually get all of our friends and their children together to look at the lights and explore the zoo at night. The zoo is transformed with the abundance of lights and decorations and the kids love it. It adds a different dimension to the normal zoo experience.”
Susan O’ Cain, the zoo’s marketing director, said the lights display adds a needed boost for the zoo in the winter.
“The experience showcases the festive sights and sounds of the season and has become a family favorite for our members and frequent visitors,” said O’Cain. “In addition to providing an atmosphere where families can connect with one another and nature, Lights Before Christmas provides vital funding for our operations as we enter the slower winter season.”
That dimension includes an illuminated show of green, purple, red and white lights. The zoo takes on a magical ambiance at night with the lights, as Christmas music from The Peanuts, Bing Crsoby and Dolly Parton helps set the yuletide mood.
Kristy Gwyn, a music teacher at West Columbia’s Northside Middle School, and her eight-year-old daughter, Kailey, look forward to the lights at the zoo as an annual event.
“Kailey loves to walk around looking at the lights,” said Gwyn. “She always hopes to see the animals out. You can tell by the look in her eyes how excited she is by the spectacular show. It really an amazing display.”
The dazzling display includes nearly one million twinkling lights and countless animated images. This year the “lights” includes, for the first time, a 30-foot animated story tree plus a Holly Jolly Christmas Parade of charismatic characters.
And for the many children that wait in excited anticipation to the see the lights, Santa Claus will be added be greeting guests starting at 6 p.m. each evening through December 23.
“The Lights Before Christmas inclueds Santa’s Village, sponsored by South Carolina’s Future Scholar 529 College Savings Program. To help warm the cold December nights, there is a Jingle Bell bonfire. Many a family uses the flames to toast s’mores, as an added treat. There is hot cocoa and snow every night, too.
Debbie Hendrix, of West Columbia, has taken her granddaughter, Mia, to the lights at the zoo since Mia, now 4, was born.
“It is a wonderful time for the whole family. We make s’mores and have hot chocolate. The lights are beautiful,” Hendrix said. “Mia is fascinated by all the lights.”
Hendrix said her granddaughter seems to like the lights more each year, as Mia is not the only one.
“I love the rich color and the abundance of all the lights,” said Hendrix. “They are beautiful. The light put me in the spirit of Christmas, and I leave every year with such a good feeling. It’s something we anticipate and I’m so glad the zoo does such a wonderful job with the decorations.”
The Lights Before Christmas will take place until Dec. 30, from 5 p.m. until 9 p.m. Lights will be closed Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. General admission is $11 for adults and $9 for children ages 2 – 12. Children under 2 are admitted free.
Guests are encouraged to purchase tickets in advance online (Zoo members will receive at least one free visit with a valid membership card and picture ID; guest passes are not be accepted).
Lights Before Christmas is open rain or shine. Parking for the event is available on the Zoo side only at 500 Wildlife Parkway in Columbia.
Lights Before Christmas at Riverbanks Zoo and Garden began 30 years ago and is now Columbia’s longest running holiday tradition.