South Carolina lights up in December. Boat parades, candlelight tours and drive-through winter wonderlands fill towns and cities around the state. Add visits from Santa, holiday markets and an outdoor New Year’s Eve celebration and you have a calendar full of seasonal fun.
Beginning Dec. 1, Murrells Inlet
Brookgreen Gardens, the spectacular sculpture gardens just south of Myrtle Beach, glows even brighter in December when 5,500 hand-lit candles and countless sparkling lights fill the pathways at the Nights of a Thousand Candles. On three December weekends (Dec. 1-3, 8-10 and 15-18), visitors can stroll through the gardens from 3-10 p.m. and marvel at the seasonal décor, including an 80-foot-tall fir tree decorated with 70,000 lights. There are also carolers and hand bell ringers, helping to set the holiday mood.
Dec. 1-31, Sumter
When the sun goes down, the Swan Lake Iris Gardens in Sumter come to life in December. The Fantasy of Lights opening ceremony starts at 6 p.m., Dec. 1, with the holiday event running nightly through Dec. 31. More than 1 million twinkling lights will illuminate the gardens from dusk until 9 p.m. weekdays and until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Visitors can drive through or park and walk. Don’t miss the floating Christmas tree. The park, with its signature swans, is great to visit in the daytime, too. Admission is free.
Dec. 1-31, Irmo
Hop in the car and head to Saluda Shoals Park along the banks of the Saluda River, where more than a million lights sparkle at Holiday Lights on the River. You'll see more than 400 animated light displays along the 2-mile loop. Don't miss the Dazzling Dancing Forest—lighted trees that dance to music. Then park the car and walk along the boardwalk, where nature comes alive in sparkling lights. Climb aboard a tube and slide down the 125-foot Winter Wonder Ride (no snow needed). It's open each night from 6-10 p.m.
All month, James Island
Holiday magic continues this month with the Holiday Festival of Lights, which opened in November and continues through Jan. 1. Hop in the car and drive a 3-mile route through James Island County Park, illuminated with millions of multicolored lights and more than 700 light displays. Then park your car and explore. There’s shopping, food, games and entertainment – even a sculpture made from more than 50 tons of sand. Or you can hop aboard the holiday train for an up-close look at the lights.
Through Dec. 30, Columbia
Riverbanks Zoo and Gardens in Columbia continues its popular holiday light display this month, which opened in November. More than 1 million lights will twinkle on the zoo grounds, along with dozens of animated images lining the walkways at the Lights Before Christmas at Riverbanks. Santa will be there for visits each night through Dec. 23, and you can sip hot chocolate around the jingle bell bonfire. Don’t expect to see many animals at night, though—most will be off catching an evening nap.
Dec. 1-31, Hilton Head Island
Calling itself “the most tastefully tacky light display in the Southeast,” Shelter Cove Towne Centre in Hilton Head will light up from 6-10 p.m. each night. Visitors are invited to park their car and stroll among the lights and falling snow (don’t worry, it’s just bubbles), while shopping, dining and enjoying entertainment at the Dove Street Festival of Lights.
Dec. 1-4, Columbia
The Junior League Holiday Market in Columbia offers the perfect opportunity to find the right gift for everyone on your holiday list. About 150 merchants from around the country will sell merchandise during the shopping extravaganza. The market also features a children’s event and visit from Santa. The shopping event typically raises more than $250,000 to help strengthen the health and well-being of children and families in the Midlands.
Dec. 10, Camden
Camden is a quaint historic town to visit any time of year, but it truly shines during the holiday season. The 40th Candlelight Tour of Homes lets visitors peek inside some of the city’s most elegant homes. The tour runs from 3 to 8 p.m., starting at the Camden Archives and Museum on Broad Street. While you’re in town, make time to stop in at some of the city’s restaurants and shops – decked out in their holiday best.
Dec. 10, Mount Pleasant
The Mount Pleasant farmer’s market is always filled with locally grown produce, baked good and local crafts. In December, it adds a seasonal touch with the annual Holiday Farmers Market and Craft Show. You’ll find Christmas ornaments, glassworks and a variety of original works by local potters, artists and craftsmen. There’s also live entertainment and children’s activities. It runs from 11 a.m. until 4 p.m. at the Farmers Market Pavilion on the Moultrie Middle School grounds. Admission is free.
Dec. 31, Columbia
Count down the final hours of 2016 and toast to 2017 on the streets of downtown Columbia. The state’s capital city throws a free party to ring in the New Year each Dec. 31. Columbia’s Famously Hot New Year offers the largest New Year’s Eve fireworks show in the Carolinas. There’s also live entertainment, a kids carnival, ice skating on Main Street, vendors selling food, soft drinks, beer, wine and champagne. You find plenty of silly hats and noisemakers. Gates open at 6 p.m.