Raising Richmond: East + West = Magic

East meets west at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden for 2012′s Dominion GardenFest of Lights. Guys. This is not to be missed.

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I tend to get a bit weepy when I think about Lewis Ginter this time of year–the garden, not the guy.

Now you might find it odd for a grown woman to tear up at the thought of a botanical garden, but I have a good reason: Lewis Ginter was the setting for The Catrow Family’s first joint-encounter with holiday mushiness.

It was just after our son JR turned one, and we were in the thick of our first “real” holiday season1 as a family of three. My husband and I spent an evening watching JR gleefully toddle up and down the paths of Lewis Ginter during the 2009 edition of Dominion GardenFest of Lights.

I distinctly remember one point in the evening as we shepherded JR through the light maze in the Children’s Garden. My husband stopped dead in his tracks, waved his arms spastically about him, and declared (in a extremely rare verbalization of emotion2), “Look at our little guy! Look at THIS! This…is…MAGICAL.”

As you can imagine, that sweet moment earned Dominion GardenFest a permanent spot on our family’s list of holiday traditions.

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Fast forward three years and here we are, fresh off celebrating our son’s fourth birthday (a milestone that, I believe, puts us in the sweet spot when it comes to Lewis Ginter appreciation) and champing at the bit to soak up all that Dominion GardenFest of Lights 2012 has to offer. And rightfully so because, guys, it is…fantastic.

In years past, GardenFest was, as Lewis Ginter’s Director of Horticulture, Grace Chapman, put it, “All about the pretty lights.” However 2012’s theme of “East Meets West” allowed the Garden to shift towards a more all-hands-on-deck approach to this Richmond holiday favorite. The Garden’s operations staff worked closely with the horticulturalist and education department (as well as a crew of over 200 volunteers) to create a more comprehensive, educational, and interactive experience.

In addition to the over 500,000 (as in half of a MILLION) lights on display, Dominion GardenFest 2012 highlights botanicals and decorative arts from Eastern cultures that continue to influence Western traditions. The Conservatory alone boasts a 20-foot tree (parked in the spot formerly occupied by Butterflies LIVE!) brimming with silk flowers, sparkly fans, and coy fish ornaments.

Photo credit: SJ Collins Photography

The nearby toy train display features model locomotives chugging past tiny bonsai forests, teahouses, coy fishponds, and pagodas–all hand crafted by members of the Lewis Ginter staff. According to PR and Marketing Coordinator, Jonah Holland, the construction of these models allowed even those employees with typically less-than-artistic jobs get in on the fun. In fact, Lewis Ginter’s registrar, Laura Lee Folman, is the creative force behind one of the display’s focal points: a particularly stunning pagoda featuring a roof constructed out of (are you ready for this?) 2,500 pine cone “tiles.”

Photo credit: Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden

The Asian influence continues into the Cottage Wing of the Conservatory where you’ll find what is perhaps Dominion GardenFest’s crowning achievement this year: the Crane Chandelier.

Photo credit: SJ Collins Photography

I challenge you not to gasp when you clap eyes on this beauty.

Constructed out of 2,500 paper cranes (which Lewis Ginter staff and volunteers started folding back in September), the chandelier serves as a nod to a Japanese legend stating that anyone who folds 1,000 paper cranes will be granted a wish.

The Cottage Wing also houses Dominion GardenFest’s annual tribute to children’s literature. As Holland explained, “Every year we pick a children’s story to go along with the theme. It’s another way to keep kids and families engaged.” This year’s pick, The Empty Pot by Demi,3 tells the story of Ping, a little boy living in China who does his best (despite some impossible circumstances) to grow a beautiful blossom from a seed given to him by the Emperor. You and your kids can watch Ping’s story4 unfold through a series of recreated images from the book, all on display alongside the Cottage Wing’s rich selection of botanicals.

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When you head outside you’ll find that almost every nook and cranny of the Garden pays homage to the East Meets West theme. Trees are festooned5 with Japanese lanterns, colorfully lit swans and serpents dot the ponds and creeks, and you’ll spot a very handsome–and very large–peacock (an Asain symbol for beauty and dignity) showing off his impressive feathers down near the Bloemendaal House.

Oh, and there’s also this giant dragon.

Photo credit: SJ Collins Photography

He (or she, I suppose) stands guard over one of the pathways to the Children’s Garden where you’ll find some of your old, family-friendly favorites: the light maze, tree house, and spots for toasting s’mores.

If you’re looking to get a bit more than “ooohs” and “ahhhs” out of their Dominion GardenFest experience,6 as I mentioned before, the staff at Lewis Ginter has also incorporated more botanical education into this year’s displays. As you peruse your vistor’s map, take note of the leaf insignias marked throughout the Garden; in each of those spots you’ll find native Asian plants growing right here in Virginia. Or if “awwwwws” are more your thing, be sure to stop by the Education & Library Complex to check out the display of trees adorably decked with themed ornaments, hand-made by local elementary school students.

(Photo credit: Me)

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Dominon GardenFest of Lights runs nightly from 5:00 PM – 10:00 PM through January 7th (they are closed December 24th and 25th). Special events include: GardenFest for Fidos on select Thursdays through January 3rd; a performance from Greater Richmond’s Children’s Choir on Sunday, December 16th; and, of course, the New Year’s Family Frolic on December 31st. Visitors can also take part in events throughout the week:

  • Merry Mondays: Santa “sightings,” fireside story time with the Garden Keeper, and a visit from the Butterfly Fairy
  • Caroling Tuesdays: Barbershop quartets strolling and singing through the Garden
  • Crafty Wednesdays: Garden staff and visitors leading workshops on creating Asian-inspired crafts like origami, miniature kites, and lanterns
  • Musical Thursdays: Acoustic musicians playing holiday favorites

I mean, come on! Look at all of that festivity! All of that holiday cheer! If you don’t start getting at least a little teary reading it, well, I’m sorry. I just don’t know what to do with you.

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Dominion GardenFest of Lights takes place at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden (1800 Lakeside Avenue. Admission is $11 for adults, $10 for seniors, and $7 for ages 3 to 12 (kids under 3 are free). Garden members admission is $5 for adults, and $4 for children of members (ages 3 to 18). For more information, visit lewisginter.org.

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Footnotes

  1. JR was born in mid-November, so he spent his first Christmas napping, nursing, pooping, and then pooping some more. 
  2. I love him, but he’s a robot. 
  3. This one. Not that one or that one
  4. If you can’t get your hands on the book, here’s a nice reading of it on YouTube
  5. Yeah, you read that right. Festooned. It’s the holidays, so I’m going with it. 
  6. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I had the chance to preview the lights last week and I spent a solid hour walking around the garden shout-whispering “IT IS ALL SO PRETTY!” To myself. 
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Valerie Catrow

Valerie Catrow is managing editor of RVAFamily. When she’s not oversharing her parenting struggles and successes, you can find her raising a preschool-aged boy and watching 90s television shows.

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