270,000 lights. 16,000 marshmallows. 5,000 Lite-Brite pegs. Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at a treasured tradition at Heritage Museums & Gardens in Sandwich.By Marina Davalos | Photos courtesy of Heritage Museum & Gardens unless otherwise specified
From the very first night of Gardens Aglow, as he watches crowds of visitors stroll through lighted archways, roast marshmallows or visit Santa, director of horticulture Les Lutz—the mastermind behind the popular annual event—is already formulating new ideas for the following year. By the time summer comes, he and his crew have mapped out the lighting, completed walkthroughs of the gardens and decided which plants and trees will be lit.
On a map of Heritage Museums & Gardens, Lutz and his crew sketch with colored pencils which color lights will go where, keeping track of how many lights per tree or shrub. This year, the amount of lights, if stretched from end to end, would total more than 12 miles.
The crew begins installing lights the day after Labor Day. “Our tradition is that we always light the fringe tree first,” says Lutz, who has been with Heritage for six years. The fringe tree stands outside the Wing House, an administration building. Then it’s off to the ‘rhodies.’ “We wrap the lights around the trunks to highlight the natural form of each plant,” says Lutz. “When visitors come in the summer, they see the blooms, but this showcases the rest of the plant.” In this way, Lutz says, Gardens Aglow also gives plants that don’t get as much attention their chances to shine.
In October, planning is taken to new heights. “We rent a boom lift for a week to do the high stuff, like hanging the snowflakes,” says Lutz. Twenty-eight lighted snowflakes, each about 4 to 6-1/2 feet in diameter, were created by students at Cape Cod Regional Technical High School in Harwich, who worked from sketches provided by Heritage.
The Heritage Holiday Express train display in the special exhibits gallery features a serpentine train track supported by natural tree trunks—the setup of which takes an estimated 160 hours. They have to saw the base out of plywood, then cover it with moss for the train tracks to sit on. This year, there will be two sets of tracks. “One is above your head, and one will be at kid level that they can walk under,” says Lutz.
His other engineering feat—building bridges. This year, full-scale models of the George Washington Bridge and the Cape Cod Canal Railroad Bridge will be on display. It takes an average of 350 hours to construct each bridge. New this year is a giant Lite-Brite in the special exhibits gallery, standing 14 feet tall and 16 feet wide and lit from the inside. Manager of facilities and securities John DeLellis says he ordered about 5,000 vintage Lite-Brite pegs on eBay.
Who could come to Gardens Aglow and not roast marshmallows? Heritage provides the fire pits, marshmallows and roasting sticks. “You can’t buy marshmallow roasting sticks in November. We have to order them in June,” says Heather Mead, director of visitor engagement. So in June, Mead orders 13 cases of them, with 864 sticks in each case. That makes 11,232 marshmallow sticks. They start with a minimum of 250 bags of marshmallows, and with around 64 marshmallows per bag, well, that comes out to 16,000 marshmallows.
For the very first time, Mrs. Claus will travel with Santa to Heritage. While Santa’s busy in the round barn taking requests from children, Mrs. Claus will be in her very own parlor in the special exhibits gallery. Interior designer Irina MacPhee, owner of Pastiche of Cape Cod, was instrumental in persuading Mrs. Claus to come. “One of Irina’s displays last year inspired us to create a space for Mrs. Claus,” says Mead. So MacPhee consulted with Santa’s elves and designed Mrs. Claus’s home in the special exhibits gallery to make her feel welcome. “It’ll be a magical experience for everyone to visit her here. I bet she’ll be making a gingerbread house in her kitchen,” says MacPhee.
The first holiday lights event held at Heritage was called Spectacle of Lights, which ran from 2003-2008. In 2009, Heritage put on a smaller, non-lighted holiday event, and in 2010 they began Gardens Aglow, making 2017 Heritage’s 14th year hosting a lighted holiday event. “It’s become part of our visitors’ holiday tradition,” says Amy Dean, director of marketing, communications and PR. “They have a ritual of coming to Gardens Aglow. When I talk to people, there’s a real emotional connection that they have to Heritage.”
Gardens Aglow kicked off on Nov. 24, the day after Thanksgiving, and continues through Dec. 30 at Heritage Museums & Gardens, 67 Grove St., Sandwich. Call 508-888-3300 or visit heritagemuseumsandgardens.org for specific times, days and tickets.
Gardens Aglow By the Numbers
miles of lights
cases of marshmallow sticks
years hosting a
lighted holiday event
snowflakes, 4 to 6.5 feet each
feet of lighted archways
hours to set up the
Heritage Holiday Express
feet of train tracks
hours to construct each bridge
hours to install lights
lights in all