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Sandra Thomas

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Festival Of Lights At Vancouver's VanDusen Botanical Garden (PHOTOS)

Posted: 12/20/2011 8:25 am

"I passed through the seven levels of the Candy Cane forest, through the sea of swirly twirly gum drops, and then I walked through the Lincoln Tunnel."

That quote from Buddy the Elf from the Christmas movie Elf always comes to mind when I write or hear of anything to do with the Festival of Lights at VanDusen Botanical Garden, located in Vancouver, British Columbia. (I write about the festival on occasion as part of my beat as a reporter for the Vancouver Courier.)

It might be that fact the festival boasts attractions with names like Gingerbread Wood, the Golden Chain Walk and Candy Cane Lane, that bring Buddy to mind. This past week the festival also sparkled with the glitter of several drag queens who graced the festival to check out the Dancing Lights on Livingstone Lake and the Sparkling Spruce as part of the Cozy Up With Pride event sponsored by Vancouver Pride Society.

Of course Santa is also on hand in his "Living Room" at the VanDusen festival nightly to hear the wish lists of visiting children, including, on that night last week, boys dressed as girls.

What most visitors don't know is that behind the glittering winter wonderland is a small team of dedicated bulb testers, who this year hand tested 1.4 million lights in the 12 weeks leading up to the festival's opening Dec. 9. For five days a week for three months, the volunteers (aka "bulb elves") sat in a room surrounded by hundreds of green and white storage totes stacked floor to ceiling.

The volunteers describe their task not as working "by the book," but rather as working "by the bin." The volunteers sit at a long folding tables, each equipped with an electrical outlet. The bulb elves pull out one string of lights at a time and check them for defective, chipped or burned-out bulbs. Once their inspection is complete, defective bulbs are replaced and the string of lights is packed back into a plastic container. Each tote is then labelled with information such as the date the bulbs were tested, how many strings each tote holds and what colour the lights are. The volunteers reward for the tedious work? Cookies and coffee.

Once the bulb elves have been at it for a month, garden staff begins stringing the lights across much of the garden's 12 acres. The number of lights used for the ornate displays grew regularly until about eight years ago when its expansion ground to a halt at 25,000 incandescent bulbs because of the garden's electrical capacity. But with the introduction of LED lights (light emitting diodes), and the help of a new transformer installed by the city, the sky is literally the limit. Today the 1.4 million LED bulbs used in the displays use less power than the incandescents from back in the day.

The festival isn't just famous for its dancing lights, but also for its Scandinavian Christmas Elves, Svend and Jens, who with names like that could be mistaken for hockey players. The glittering lights also play the perfect backdrop for the numerous community choirs who fill the air with tidings of comfort and joy each night.

And here's a tip for romantics looking to tie the knot. Garden staff doesn't know if it's the lights, the music, atmosphere, strategically placed mistletoe or everything combined, but over its 29 years the Festival of Lights has increasingly become a popular spot for marriage proposals.

Hours of admission for the Festival of Lights are 4:30 to 9 p.m. now through Jan. 2. The garden is closed Christmas Day.

Gingerbread anyone?
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The Gingerbread Wood is a popular attraction for kids visiting the VanDusen Botanical Garden Festival of Lights.
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