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Bekah Porter: Christmas trees aplenty at Atlanta Botanical Garden's Holiday Nights display
Bekah Porter is a travel columnist for The Times

Six years ago, my husband and I abandoned the boxy Midwestern state of our birth to migrate to the land of peaches, peanuts, pimentos and y’all’s.

We moved for my man’s job and quickly settled in as Southerners, finding the only thing we really missed was fresh sweet corn plucked right from Iowa’s far-reaching fields.

Sure, we missed our families. But every year, we’ve made the pilgrimage to Iowa, driving the 11 hours to our family fete. And, if I shed my Scrooge persona for a second, they’ve been enjoyable.

Except something has happened. In the past few years, as my husband and I have reached our early 30s and started planning for our own children, home is no longer back where the cold wind blows and tall corn grows. It’s here in Georgia with our cats. And our own memories and traditions are just waiting to be made.

Yet, year after year, we cram our car with packages, pajamas and toiletries to last a week and snow shovels to bail us out of the trouble that can only come in a state with human-sized snow drifts. It’s become bittersweet.

So what’s the point of getting in the holiday spirit in our own home when we’re not going to be there to enjoy it? So, for the last several years, we’ve foregone the Christmas bling.

We’ve passed on the tree. We’ve skipped the lights. We’ve kept the holiday china in the buffet, and left the keepsake ornaments neatly tucked away in bubble wrap. It’s grown increasingly hard to justify the time and effort that comes with retrieving, setting up and tearing down the holiday trimmings when they’ll only be enjoyed for what feels like a blink of the eye because we’re 1,000 miles away on the big day.

But then, I found a solution. (Spoiler alert: No, it’s not skipping the trip, although I do think we’re going to start alternating years in Iowa and years spent just the two of us.)

The answer was in front of me all along: The Atlanta Botanical Garden and its Garden Lights Holiday Nights exhibit.

For those unfamiliar with the event, picture more than a million twinkling orbs dotting the night sky. Then, pipe in Christmas music. Next, envision a boozy hot chocolate in your mittened hand. And if your imagination is still up to the task, let your ears be soaked with the sound of crackling fires and let your nose be pleasantly assaulted by the scents of smoke and toasted marshmallows.

I could go on, but let’s just cut to the chase: Garden Lights Holiday Nights is more than a mere lightshow. It’s a Christmas carnival for all the senses.

As my husband and I joined the (many, many) masses this last weekend, we found ourselves agape at the wonder of it all. Every section of the botanical garden was Christmas-ified.

The trees had lights. The bushes had lights. Heck, even some tropical plant whose name I can’t pronounce had lights.

Some of the lights were an iridescently classy white. Others were blue. So many more were red and green. Some remained solid in their shine time while others pulsated to the beat of whatever holiday tune being played.

A drink station allowed us to choose a hot beverage, and if we wanted to (which we did), we could add some adult liquid (again, we did.) Children raced around us to the bonfire to toast their marshmallows. And, in a moment of spontaneous fondness, we even kissed under the mistletoe prominently hung in a secluded corner.

It was lovely.

And best of all? Christmas trees. Christmas trees of all shapes, sizes and species. A maple or two glistened and gleamed. A few magnolias glittered and glowed. And the traditional firs and pines and spruces light up the night sky, taller and more decadent than any we could fit in our metro apartment.

My husband and I will get into our Kia this year and drive the nearly dozen hours to sit in front our families’ respective Christmas trees. And yes, part of it will include carols and maybe even some hot cocoa (although our teetotaler parents will frown on adding extra Christmas spirits.)

But this year, we will have already had our tree. And flowers, bushes, fountain and bonfire and Chinese garden and wooded walkway. And we will not have had to do any setting up or tearing down. It’s still just for us two. Our family. Me and him.

And it can be for your family, too.

Bekah Porter is a travel writer for The Times. She can be reached at

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