Callaway Gardens lights up the holidays

Neolithic humans celebrated the winter solstice with feasts and torches, heralding the return of the light.

Our DNA responds to this critical midwinter occasion, when our ancestors reassured themselves that nights were getting shorter and that they had enough stores to last until spring.

Ancient traditions reverberate in modern times, with the Yule log, holiday lights and the decorating of lawns with huge, glowing, inflatable snowmen.

To satisfy your archaic (and ecumenical) longing to light up the wintertime darkness, Georgia’s outdoor attractions have outdone themselves, and none more so than Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain.

Callaway Gardens has been wiring this Middle Georgia oasis for light and sound since 1992, and continues to add new colors to its wintertime sparkle. Recently, National Geographic chose it one of the top 10 holiday displays on the planet.

This year’s Fantasy in Lights show includes specialty nights for pedestrians, bicyclists, motorcyclists and a workshop for photographers looking to improve their skills at nighttime pictures.

Visitors drive along a 5-mile trail through 15 scenes made up of 8 million lights. The huge number of lights requires less power than ever, as Callaway transitions to high-efficiency, low-demand LED lights.

You have a choice of driving your own car through the light show or riding in one of the Jolly Trolleys. The trolleys leave from the beach entrance to Callaway, off U.S. 27. The queue for the trolleys begins near the Christmas Village, which pops up each winter under the same big top tent where the Florida State University circus performers run a camp in the summertime.

Entry to the Christmas Village requires no admission fee, and includes shopping, musical entertainment, a cafe, a country store and boutiques specializing in electric trains, collegiate wear, candy, toys, jellies and jams. Callaway personnel entertain visitors during the event with an abbreviated birds of prey show, while costumed characters mingle with the guests.

Santa is on hand for consultations, and, for the first time this year, has set aside a special evening for photo opportunities with animals, during pet night Nov. 14.

While children waiting to board the trolley can enjoy hot chocolate, adults can warm up with something stronger, ordering from a menu of hot toddies available on-site.

During a recent preview night, the glitter of the brilliant displays was amplified by a full moon, which reflected off Callaway’s lakes and peeked through the trees as if on cue.

My family particularly enjoyed Snowflake Valley, in which a gentle snowfall is suggested by vertical curtains of white lights, strung throughout the trees.

Many of the scenes include moving characters — or suggested animation. In the Santa’s Workshop section, an animated elf (with the help of a big-nosed reindeer) tosses a wheel to a colleague, who assembles a bicycle and ships it off to Santa’s sled.

The beauty of Callaway’s 6,500 acres of woodlands and gardens also contributes to the scene. In the Swan Lake section, waterfowl and ice skaters seem to glide over an unfrozen lake to music by Tchaikovsky. During our visit, the swans were joined briefly by an actual heron, which perched on top of one of the lighted creatures, then flew off.

Atlanta Holiday Guide 2015: Holiday lights and events

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