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A High Plains Holiday Illuminated

Holiday Illuminated lights at the Amarillo Botanical Gardens
Written by Russell Graves. Photographs by Russell Graves.

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It’s 30 minutes before sunset and the crowd outside the gates of the Amarillo Botanical Gardens is stirring with anticipation. Tens of thousands of Christmas lights string the garden’s four-and-a-half acres, providing a colorful backdrop for at least three photographers who’ve entered early to shoot family portraits and a small video crew filming a model’s promotional portfolio.

Amarillo Botanical Gardens is at 1400 Streit Dr. The Christmas Garden of Lights runs 6-8 p.m. Nov. 28-Dec. 19. Admission by donation. Call 806/352-6513.

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“The people in Amarillo and the surrounding area really get excited about the lights,” says Kevin Ball, executive director of the Gardens. “Some people even come out to see them multiple times in a season.”

Originally founded in the late 1940s as the Amarillo Garden Club, the Amarillo Botanical Gardens draws visitors throughout the year with its tropical plant conservatory, butterfly garden, xeriscaping, and an amphitheater that hosts a musical series in the warmer months. Located in Amarillo’s Medical Center Park, the Botanical Gardens even hosted 82 weddings in 2014. But it’s the dazzling Christmas Garden of Lights that attracts the bulk of visitors and introduces the site to a new audience each year.

The Botanical Gardens launched its Christmas lights display six years ago as a one-night event. In 2013, it lengthened the light display to two weeks, drawing more than 23,000 people. Visitation more than doubled in 2014 to 53,000, which made up more than half of the Gardens’ total attendance for the year. This year, the Botanical Gardens is increasing the display to three weeks and stringing more than 200,000 lights across the facility—an all-time high.

Ironically, this flurry of activity takes place when most of the Gardens’ plant life is dormant, having already been exposed to the Panhandle’s freezing winter temperatures. The Gardens’ primary purpose, Ball says, is to showcase plants that thrive in the semi-arid climate of the High Plains. You’ll find prickly pear and cholla cactus in the Cactus Garden; bald cypress trees in the Japanese Garden; agave and Texas sage in the High Plains garden; climbing roses in the Monet Garden; and mesquite trees in the Palo Duro Garden. “Everything outdoors is planted so that people can come and see the many things they didn’t realize can thrive in this climate,” he says. “We try to live true to the climate here as much as possible.”

Though the trees and shrubs are mostly bare in December, their trunks and branches sparkle with multicolor LED lights during the display, as do the buildings and walkways throughout the Botanical Gardens. In the Monet Garden, archways hold thousands of lights where blooming roses typically grow in spring and fall. The resulting tunnel is a popular spot for family snapshots. Above the amphitheater, a comical frog statue stands sentinel over a small reflecting pond, where spheres of light reflect off of the water’s dark surface. In the amphitheater pit, a projector displays an image of Santa Claus on the conservatory wall. With holiday music playing, Santa directs an unseen orchestra, sparks flying from the tip of his baton.

A favorite stop at any time of year is the tropical plant conservatory, a 6,000-square-foot, glass-walled building that houses plants like banana and papaya trees, as well as a Brazilian ring-necked teal duck, in a consistent climate of about 70 degrees and 75 percent humidity. During the Christmas Garden of Lights, bulbs brighten the plants and a large golden star hangs from the ceiling, its tail of light shimmering over the waterfall below.

Local musical groups complement the light show each night of the display with acts ranging from an Amarillo High School choir to carolers, a barbershop quartet, and a church handbell group. The musical groups typically perform on the plaza outside of the indoor gallery, where Pan-Handlers Café sells cider, hot cocoa, coffee, and snacks. This year, local bakeries will also display gingerbread houses in the gallery.

The Conley family from Amarillo made their second annual trip to the Christmas Garden of Lights last December, stopping to snap a photo under the festive archway in the Monet Garden. “Our kids are awed by all the lights,” says Jeremiah Conley of his three young sons. “The lights are always beautifully done, but it’s the look on our kids’ faces and their enjoyment of the gardens that we cherish the most.”

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