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Lights of Magnolia

Red lanterns illuminate the sky at Magnolia Plantation.
Red lanterns illuminate the sky at Magnolia Plantation. All images © 2019 Audra L. Gibson

"Do you want to see the Lights of Magnolia tonight?" That was the subject line of an email I received last Friday around noon. Herb Frazier, the Marketing and Public Relations Manager at Magnolia Plantations and Gardens had his answer in less than five minutes.


"Yes! I'll be there."



I had been hearing about the lantern festival from my friends at Magnolia for over a year. They were incredibly excited about it, and their enthusiasm was contagious. I had missed the sneak peak for media a few weeks prior because of a scheduling conflict. Here was a chance not only to see the project in the works, but installed and lit for the first time. The lights were being switched on as a part of a reception for a garding symposium, Gardening for Life. They would be illuminated for an hour only.


Zebras Magnolia Plantation Chinese Lantern Festival
A family of zebra await you at Magnolia.


I fought rush hour traffic and pulled into the gardens at 6:00 pm. Instead of turning early toward the regular parking lot, I pointed my car down the avenue of oak trees that leads to the plantation house. The gate was open, which meant cars were being welcomed to drive the route for special events. What met me on the other side of the gate was breath-taking.

The warm glow of hundreds of red lanterns dotted the branches of the oak trees as they stretched out across the road. On my right, I was greeted by a magnificent dragon - one that I had seen being contructed in pictures, but now looked three times as large. My foot slide off the gas pedal, and I slowly cruised through the arch way in front of the house.

Dragon Chinese Lantern Festival Magnolia Plantation Charleston
A mighty dragon stretches toward the plantation oaks.


The thought entered my mind, "They're only on for an hour..." I placed my foot back on the gas pedal, parked, and eagerly gathered my camera as I headed to the house. I rushed up the steps of the house to meet Herb and say hello to Mary Ann and Tom Johnson, Director of Operations and Executive Director at Magnolia respectively. The festival has been a passion project of the Johnsons and a slew of other marketing, garden, and maintenance team members at Magnolia. Tonight was the night to see it come to life.

Mary Ann had Sunny, the Chinese translator for the festival, with her. "Ni hao," I said excitedly. We chatted briefly as we walked toward the lights. I was thankful to be able to use a small amount of Mandarin I learned in college, and grateful she gave me grace in terms of my pronunciation.


Panda bears Magnolia Plantation Chinese Lantern Festival
Pandas enjoy bamboo on the grounds at Magnolia.


Magnolia has partnered with the Zigong Lantern Group in China to present Lights of Magnolia. Zigong Lantern Group is based in China and is recognized as the industry leader in Chinese festivals all over the world, ranking number one internationally in their craft.

Chinese artisans have collectively spent thousands of hours creating Lights of Magnolia: Reflections of a Cultural Exchange. It is the first lantern festival ever to be presented at a public garden in North America, and features cutom-designed, large scale installations of thematically unified lanterns, combining Chinese cultural imagery with inspiration from the flora and fauna of Magnolia.


Lion Chinese Lantern Festival Charleston
A lion stands regally in front of the pride.


Magnolia is continually looking for ways to enhance their guests experience with the gardens and believe they have found a unique way to accomplish that with the lantern festival. Meng Lui, Executive Director of China-Overseas for China Lantern International is confident this is a great beginning for Magnolia and Charleston as a whole in regard to a cultural partnership.

Mary Ann Johnson has been very involved in hosting the Chinese artisans and agrees. She told me the night of the premier lighting that the stand-out experience for her in this process had been the opportunity to take the visiting artisans to the beach for the first time. She explained how their faces lit up as they neared the ocean, and many of them video called family members to share in the experience.


Alligator Chinese Lantern Festival Magnolia.
An alligator rests next to the pond near the famous white bridge at Magnolia.


Similarily, my face lit up when I began my walk through the 9 acre lantern display. I saw glowing alligators resting on ground where I had seen real alligators in seasons past at Magnolia. Butterflies perch upon giant azaleas just as they do in March when spring arrives. Some sections of the display made me feel like I was walking through scenes from The Lion King, while others were filled with woodland creatures and full of child-like wonder.


Azalea and butterfly Magnolia Plantation Chinese Lantern Festival
One of many butterflies in the lantern display rests on a glowing azalea.


The lantern festival opens to the public tonight, November 15th. It will run evenings for four months until March 15th. Magnolia in Lights lantern festival tickets can be purchased online here. Guests will have three options for arrival when they purchase their ticket. They may park on the grounds for an extra fee, ride-share in, or park at a designated nearby location and purchase a festival shuttle ticket to be dropped off onsite.

In short, I'm extremely excited for the guests attending opening night. I can't wait for the rest of you to see it.        

Audra Gibson

Audra Gibson is a Christian, photographer, surfer, and a lover of teriyaki steak bites. She enjoys live music, doesn't like to be cold, and she's a bit of a cheese snob. Traveling Ink was her little brain child and she's very happy that you're here. She'd be oh so happy to recommend her favorite tours and attractions in town, help you with a team building event, or organize a day (or week) of fun for you and your group.


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