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Torching the garden at Christmas

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Posted: Friday, December 12, 2008 2:40 pm | Updated: 8:58 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Every December, the Desert Botanical Garden goes on a controlled burn. DBG greets the holiday season with Las Noches de las Luminarias, a magical celebration under the desert stars.

" target="_blank">VIDEO: Tour Las Noches de Las Luminanarias at Desert Botanical Garden

Every December, the Desert Botanical Garden goes on a controlled burn.

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DBG greets the holiday season with Las Noches de las Luminarias, a magical celebration under the desert stars. The preserve’s scenic nature trails are studded with musical treasures: bell choirs, mariachis, traditional carolers and Native American flutists. Food and warm beverages flow freely, but the headliners are the luminaria: those tiny brown-bagged candles that trim the brickwork trails, guiding travelers’ steps and casting the entire area in a golden holiday glow.

But those bags don’t light themselves, you know.

“We have between seven and eight thousand luminaria to light every night,” the garden’s John Sallot explains. “So, every available staff member and volunteer gathers at dusk to get the job done.” When you’re lighting “old school,” plugging sockets or throwing switches just won’t do.

“We used to use these,” Sallot says, holding up a traditional fireplace lighter, “it was backbreaking.” Two years ago, one of their crook-backed volunteers invented a solution. “It’s a tiny butane lighter. You can get them at hardware stores.” Sallot says. A tongue of blue flame flares at the top. The bottom fits into a 3-foot wand of PVC pipe. At 4 p.m., the daytime visitors are herded toward the exit, and these pinpoint torches are dispatched to a 50-person army of nature-loving arsonists, like Jackie Wilson. Clad in a sparkly Santa hat, the Tempe retiree covers the terraced walkway as the sun sinks low and the shadows stretch long off the saguaros.

“Maybe if I set enough things on fire, they’ll consider me a menace and not let me do it anymore,” she laughs. Wilson is part of a six-person team — step, poke, step, poke — wielding their wands like picky fairy godmothers. Nine to 10 such teams are dispatched every afternoon, racing both sunset and the 5:30 p.m. starting time. “They begin lighting at the entrance and work their way back to the farthest trails,” Sallot says. “When the equipment was new, we could light the garden in 30 minutes. Now, flames will sputter here and there, but we can still get it done in 45.”

Poking her way around a huge Dale Chihuly glass sculpture, Wilson says the glorious result makes all her flame-throwing worth it. “It just looks so beautiful at the end. I get to take tickets when they open, and when people come in and see the garden lit up, they just get so excited.”

Las Noches de las Luminarias has been a staple at the Desert Botanical Garden for 31 years now. Many things have changed in that time. The garden has expanded, the luminaria are no longer sack lunch bags. (“We use plastic replicas. They give off better light,” Sallot says.) But the event remains the best local fusion of holiday tradition and Southwestern style. And much of that ambience comes courtesy of a torch-bearing mob you’ll never see.

LAS NOCHES DE LAS LUMINARIAS

Where: 1201 N. Galvin Parkway, Phoenix

When: 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

How much: adults, $20-$25; children, $10-$12.50. The event is currently sold out, but check the Web site for openings.

Contact: (480) 481-8188 or click here

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