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Luminary celebrates the holidays

By Staff | Nov 26, 2014

‘Tween Waters Inn. FILE PHOTO

Ten thousand.

That’s the number of candles estimated to have been lighted over the years during the Luminary Festival, the kickoff celebration to the holidays in Sanibel and Captiva. The candles line and illuminate Sanibel’s main drag.

This year marks the thirtieth annual Luminary celebration. Beginning at dusk, Sanibel celebrates the event on Dec. 5, followed in Captiva on Dec. 6. The two islands glimmer with holiday lights and luminary candles lighted in Sanibel on Periwinkle Way, from the beach lighthouse to Tarpon Bay Road. Captiva welcomes visitors and islanders with its Holiday Village, boat parades and other holiday activities. Captiva also celebrates Nov. 28 with a fireworks display hosted by the ‘Tween Waters Resort.

The nondenominational Luminary celebration “reminds (you) of those little holiday villages at Christmastime,” said Mary Bondurant, whose Bondurant Realty Group is the event’s title sponsor. “The merchants, the shops, the plazas and the churches, all the lights and the trolleys, it’s just a wonderful evening and a welcoming back for the holidays.”

The chamber in 1984 was debating ways of bridging the uneventful time between Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and Christmas. The Luminary festival was the nondenominational result. It has become one of the most treasured events in the San-Cap islands in the ensuing thirty years. The event has so grown in stature that a social media marketing firm has listed the event in its top ten holiday events to visit. PopUp Republic lists Luminary as distinctive in temporary shopping opportunities, named only behind such holiday events in New York, Washington, D.C., and in Chicago.

“People absolutely love it,” said Fran Peters, chair of the Sanibel Captiva Islands Chamber of Commerce. “Even after all these years living and working on Sanibel, I feel a sense of wonderment on the Luminary evening. It’s dark and cool after what has been a warm and sunny day, and there are scents of food preparation and perfume from the fragrant flowers, the streets are full of cheerful wanderers enjoying the evening, and there is a feeling that we are all sharing in a very special occasion.”

The Sanibel Historical Village this season will celebrate Christmas with the public at a free “Homesteaders’ Christmas” from 3 to 5 p.m. on Dec. 5 preceding Luminary festivities.

“We’re so happy to have the chance this year to bring an old-time Christmas feeling to the people of Sanibel,” said Gayle Pence, co-chair of the committee planning the event.

Each of the village’s eight buildings will represent an aspect of past Christmas seasons. There will be children’s holiday artwork and letters to Santa, carol singers from the Sanibel Community Chorus, and lots of old-fashioned Christmas decorations. Children will be stringing popcorn and cranberries; there will be readings of “A Night Before Christmas” and visitors will be invited to have their pictures taken in front of the Rutland House Christmas tree.

Luminary pilgrims make their journey around the islands every year, Fran Peters said. They eagerly follow the trail of lighted candles nestling in their little paper bags. The candles are placed by a local service organization, the Sanibel and Captiva Lions Club. Volunteers start to gather shortly before dusk when the stars are beginning to appear in the fading evening light. As the stars strengthen, so do the candles begin to glimmer along the pathways and around the plazas. The darker the skies the more the candles beckon to the many visitors strolling from store to store. The lights lead them all along Periwinkle Way and into the byways beyond, revealing tucked away storefronts full of seasonal gifts and goodies.

Trolley stops at regular intervals offer free transport between the island centers of activity: places where island guests can enjoy refreshments, music, holiday activities and, perhaps most importantly, connect with the community. (Luminary’s younger participants might place a bit more emphasis on the festival’s most special of guests, Santa Claus). The volunteer-run trolley service is a part of the fun, enabling stressfree browsing between each location and a chance to chat with others enjoying the same experiences. Luminary grows in scope – and popularity – with each passing year, creating magical memories for all to share with families and friends for years to come, Fran Peters said.

Why did the Chamber decide to incorporate those white candle bags that are now so symbolic of the event?

“There are places throughout the country that put candles in bags for various events. We took a good idea and made it better. The candles make everything so festive and beautiful,” Peters said. “And it also involved the community – setting out the bags and lighting the candles. That’s how most of the service clubs, like the Lions, got involved.”

As more and more businesses, clubs, churches and organizations joined the Luminary trail, the event started attracting more visitors.

“Visitors started booking their vacations just so they could be on the islands for the Luminary event. People really got into it and every year it seemed to just get bigger and bigger, which made it that much more interesting. There are just so many different things going on and the whole community really gets involved,” Peters said.

Luminary details are sanibel-captiva.org.