One of the best parts of the holiday season is gathering with friends, neighbors, and perfect strangers at the many magical, illuminated events around town. Here, we’ve rounded up a few favorites among the Lowcountry’s merry traditions—some new, some decades old, and many that don’t cost a dime
Dec. 2 - Tree Lighting Ceremony (Cancelled)
As the temperature finally dips into the scarf-appropriate zone (fingers crossed, at least), bundle up and gather in Marion Square for a kickoff to the season as magical as any. The merriment begins at 4:30 p.m. as Charleston Jazz Orchestra takes the outdoor stage, offering up a set of big band holiday tunes, followed by a lineup of other musicians and performers from local arts organizations. Just before 6 p.m., direct your attention to the city’s official “tree” in the middle of the square—a 64-foot spectacle of swirling rainbow lights—and watch as it bursts to life to joyous applause. The tree is left aglow just until the New Year, so don’t hesitate to jump right in and twirl beneath the sparkles. Marion Square, 329 Meeting St. Sunday, 4:30-6:30 p.m.
Insider Tip: Walk around, underneath, and through Marion Square's tree for a dizzying kaleidoscopic effect.
Dec. 8 - Parade of Boats
We are in the Lowcountry, so at least one tradition has to take place on open water. The Holiday Parade of Boats (this year celebrating its 37th anniversary) calls hundreds of vessels, all adorned in twinkling lights, inflatables, and speakers piping Christmas carols, to Charleston Harbor. The good news is you don’t need sea legs or even a boat to enjoy the festive display: the parade can be viewed from the eastern edge of the peninsula (think the Battery, Waterfront Park, or Aquarium Wharf) to Mount Pleasant Waterfront Park. Charleston Harbor. Saturday, 5-8 p.m. Free. charlestonparadeofboats.com
Insider Tip: The parade sails through the harbor from 5 to 8 p.m., but we recommend claiming a spot early, as crowds are known to form waterside well before the event. For uninhibited views (as well as bites, libations, and music), consider snagging a ticket to the Rotary Club of Charleston Viewing Party at the Charleston Maritime Center—admission is $35, and just $5 for kids under 17.
Through Jan. 1 - Holiday Festival of Lights
If a touch of childlike wonder is what you seek, a visit to the Holiday Festival of Lights at James Island County Park is worth braving traffic that snakes all the way up Central Park Road. Much like walking the Ravenel Bridge or visiting the Angel Oak, if you live in Charleston (or are even passing through), you have to do it at least once.
Since the event made its debut in 1990, more than four million folks have packed into cars with to-go cups of cocoa in hand, set their radio to carols, and made the three-mile drive through the park. Decked out in upwards of two million lights woven into 750 intricate displays, the loop packs enough draw on its own, but over the years, the event has grown to include far more than just twinkle time. After doing a lap (or two, or three), you’d be remiss to skip a stop at Santa’s Village and the Winter Wonderland, where kids of all ages can take a spin on the Victorian-style carousel or hop on the Holiday Train, roast a mega-sized marshmallow, or grab some grub at Blitzen’s Burgers. James Island County Park, 871 Riverland Dr. Sunday-Thursday, 5:30-10 p.m.; Friday & Saturday, 5:30-11 p.m. $20 per vehicle. holidayfestivaloflights.com
Insider Tip: While the drive-through spectacle and Santa’s Village are open every night, check the calendar for other happenings, such as visits with Mrs. Claus, jazz performances, story times, magic shows, and more. Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission notes that traffic is at its heaviest on Fridays and Saturdays from Thanksgiving to Christmas, between 6:30 and 8:30 p.m. Avoid peak times, and note that Monday through Thursday, visitors get $5 off entry with the donation of a canned food item for the Lowcountry Food Bank.
Dec. 14 through Jan. 1 - College of Charleston’s Cougar Night Lights
Though it’s still a fledgling tradition, there’s something special about Cougar Night Lights. To those happening upon the Cistern after an evening on King Street, the fairly unadvertised light show may seem like the Lowcountry’s best kept secret, and even more evidence that the Holy City runs on a quiet sense of magic at Christmastime. But even College of Charleston students who have traipsed many times through the impressive display of dancing LEDs synced to music would have to agree, there’s something to be said for a school that taps alumni John Reynolds, class of ’97, who’s designed the lighting for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Super Bowl, to create a full-on spectacle for the simple purpose of bringing the campus and community together for a bit of holiday cheer. The details: The dazzling show—this year with 24,000 LEDs—transforms Randolph Hall and Cistern Yard, running every hour on the hour between 6 and 9 p.m. Learn more about Cougar Night Lights in “Deck the Yard”. Cistern Yard, 66 George St. Days vary, 6-9 p.m. Free. today.cofc.edu
Insider Tip: Approximately two minutes after this year’s show ends, catch a reprisal of the 2017 display.
Dec. 6 through Dec. 22 - Nights of a Thousand Candles
Make the drive up Highway 17 to Murrell’s Inlet and experience what Travel+Leisure has dubbed the “Best Christmas Lights in South Carolina.” Brookgreen Gardens’ Nights of a Thousand Candles promise the glow of more than 4,500 real candles and countless sparkling lights scattered throughout the historic park and sculpture garden, as well as other attractions including many genres of live music, a dining tent full of festive bites, and plenty of cocoa and cider to sip while you explore. Brookgreen Gardens, 1931 Brookgreen Dr., Murrells Inlet. Days vary, 3-10 p.m. $25; $15 for child under 12. (843) 235-6000, brookgreen.org
Insider Tip: Visitors can linger at Brookgreen Gardens until 10 p.m., but the best time for viewing the lights is said to be right at dusk.
Even More Merrymaking:
Dec. 1 - City of North Charleston Christmas Parade & Festival
North Charleston has a holiday extravaganza all its own—this event is one part festival and one part parade, amounting to a packed evening of Christmas cheer. Gather at the Felix C. Davis Community Center beginning at 3 p.m. for activities such as a petting zoo, hayrides, and jump castles; local food vendors; a holiday craft market; live music (including classic tunes from the Charleston Caroling Company, roaming the grounds in complete Victorian dress); and visits with Santa. At 5 p.m., the parade begins at the corner of East Montague and Mixson avenues, proceeding around Park Circle and concluding back at East Montague. Felix C. Davis Community Center, 4800 Park Cir., North Charleston. Saturday, 3-8 p.m. Free. northcharleston.org
Insider tip: Parking is free in and around Park Circle—snag a spot near the bars and restaurants off East Montague Avenue and grab a bite after the parade.
Dec. 2 - City of Charleston Holiday Parade **RESCHEDULED for December 16, new route: The parade will begin near Colonial Lake on Broad near Rutledge Avenue and continue up Broad Street to Meeting Street and disperses on Calhoun Street near Marion Square.
Kicking off a busy month of festivities, the City of Charleston’s official holiday parade starts on Broad near Colonial Lake. Featuring literal miles of entertainment, the event promises an abundance of floats, marching bands, performers, and special guests from groups across the city. Downtown Charleston. Sunday, 3 p.m. Free. (843) 577-2311, charleston-sc.gov/parade
Dec. 8 - Daniel Island Chanukah Celebration
Daniel Island holds its seventh annual celebration of Chanukah at Volvo Car Stadium. Community members of all ages are invited to witness the lighting of the menorah by Rabbi Greg Kanter at 5:15 p.m.; sample Jewish cuisine including matzoh balls, challah bread, and latkes; participate in traditional Chanukah games, and enjoy live music performed by students of the island’s own Black Tie Music Academy. Volvo Car Stadium, 161 Seven Farms Dr. Saturday, 4:30-5:30 p.m. Free. (516) 524-2208, danielisland.com
Dec. 9 - Christmas Light Parade
Now a 23-year-old tradition, Mount Pleasant’s parade is a favorite among families, making for one of the town’s largest annual community gatherings. Place your chairs on either side of Coleman Boulevard between Mill Street and Patriots Point Road and cheer as local marching bands; dance troupes; and more than 100 elaborate, community-made floats parade by. Coleman Blvd., Mount Pleasant. Sunday, 5:30-8 p.m. Free. experiencemountpleasant.com
Insider tip: The event kicks off with a fireworks display at 5:30 p.m., followed by the approximately two and a half hour-long parade. Word to the wise: claim a primo spot at dawn and then return to tailgate along the route—it’s as much a tradition as the parade itself.
Dec. 9 - Chanukah in the Square
All is aglow in Marion Square as the community gathers for the 14th annual Chanukah in the Square. Hosted by the College of Charleston’s Yaschik/Arnold Jewish Studies Program and Chabad of Charleston and the Lowcountry, the celebration for the eight-day “Festival of Lights” is lauded as the largest Jewish event in the state of South Carolina, inviting all to enjoy music, dancing, traditional eats fried in oil, and more. Every year, local Holocaust survivors do the honor of lighting the menorah, and event coordinators promise that, thankfully, “there will be no shortage of potato latkes.” Marion Square, 239 Meeting St. Sunday, 4-6 p.m. Free. facebook.com/citschs
Find even more festive event at charlestonmag.com/event-calendar.
Photographs (boat parade-2) courtesy of the Rotary Club of Charleston; Photograph (Colonial Lake) courtesy of Charleston Parks Conservancy; Photographs (4) by Mike Ledford; Photographs (5) by Wayne Egglestrom; Photographs by (Christmas Light Parade) Jennifer Smith & courtesy of (Chanukah in the Square) Chabad of Charleston & the lowcountry