Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without the annual light-up at Butchart Gardens on Dec. 1, a day that doubles as the unofficial start of the holiday season.
And what a turn-on it was, despite a light drizzle, as hundreds of visitors gathered outside the landmark tourist attraction’s Children’s Pavilion and Rose Carousel to usher in the Magic of Christmas.
Spectators of all ages, many sipping hot chocolate beneath see-through umbrellas, listened to Currier and Ives-esque Christmas carollers sing Jingle Bells.
“We truly hope you have an enchanted evening!” said general manager Dave Cowan, welcoming the crowd before inviting Aris Mariano, 9, and his sister, Anna, 3, to flip the red Christmas switch.
After a countdown punctuated by the crowd cheering “Lights up!” on cue, the horticultural highlight instantly became a jaw-dropping wonderland, complete with an ice skating rink and festive dining.
“I’ve never really seen the Christmas light-up, so this is a new experience for me,” said Wayne Wallace, a one-time Butchart Gardens employee.
“Mr. Ross was around at the time, and the organ was playing,” said Wallace, recalling his teen years working for the late Christopher Ross, who initiated the attraction’s weekly fireworks shows.
“These are fun times,” he said. “I remember as a kid this being such a happy place to be. Everybody’s out here to have a good time.”
Wallace wasn’t the only former staffer enjoying the opening-night merriment.
“We went to Brentwood Elementary, so Butchart Gardens was our backyard growing up,” recalled Michelle Cribbs, who was six when she met her friend Terry Horn.
“Then we both ended up working here,” added Horn, who was four when they first met.
“Now we’re all grown up and bring our own children,” said Cribbs, keeping an eye on her four-year-old daughter Danica, looking like a little princess with her tiara.
Danica and her brother Lance, 6, were playing with Terry’s daughter Zoe, 7, in front of a new Christmas attraction — a strikingly illuminated bronze-and-granite dragon in a new fountain encircled by red lanterns.
The 2.7-tonne sculpture, relocated from Waterwheel Square to an area near the dahlia border, was a gift from the People’s Republic of China and Suzhou, Victoria’s sister city, last year.
The women were carrying on a family tradition, as were other visitors seen accompanying parents who once brought them here in strollers.
Another new crowd-pleaser that arts and entertainment director Bruce Watson and his crew came up with this year is the interactive Enlightened Tree.
Dozens of visitors gleefully accepted an invitation to sing, speak or clap their hands in front of the purple tree, prompting its lights to “dance” by changing colours.
“Every year the gardens are decorated differently,” said Cowan. “We have a few new tricks up our sleeve, new displays and lighting techniques. A lot of thought and design goes into it. We love doing this.”
For Island IT owners and philanthropists Derek and Julie Sanderson and their children Erin, 30, and Konor, 12, this annual holiday tradition was an ideal family outing.
While Victoria generally has less snow — if any — over Christmas than their former home, Saskatoon, they weren’t complaining.
“We’re grateful to be here,” laughed Julie. “You can’t compare the two. It’s apples and oranges.”
While some say it’s not really Christmas without snow, she begs to differ.
“You can create your own spirit of Christmas by doing things like this.”
While Konor admits he sometimes misses the snow, he said there’s an upside to Victoria’s climate.
“I can play basketball year-round here with my friends,” he said. “If I did that [in Saskatchewan], it would turn into a snowman.”
Another common sight was women wandering past picturesque Twelve Days of Christmas displays in pairs, including ValleyMom.ca blogger Kristyl Clark and her mother Janine Cahill.
“I haven’t been here since I was 11, so I was super-excited to experience it,” said Clark, who flew over from the Fraser Valley to cover the event as part of her series on Victoria holiday experiences.
“This is just gorgeous. We feel like we’re in a Christmas movie.”
The Magic of Christmas continues daily until Jan. 6.