Spring is just around the corner, and here at The North Carolina Arboretum, we are looking forward to the brighter days of sunshine and fresh air ahead. But we are also taking a moment to reflect on the past year and the journey that has brought us to this point. In the midst of a global pandemic, we are proud to have been able to serve as an outdoor oasis for our members and guests, to have quickly shifted our educational programming for youth and adults to online and distance-friendly formats and to have found a way to bring holiday cheer to some of the dreariest winter months we can remember through Winter Lights. And we could not have done that without your support as members, donors and guests.

From lanterns in the winter to the real thing this spring: Snowdrops and other woodland flora and fauna featured prominently in last year’s Winter Lights display.

As the Arboretum’s largest fundraiser each year, proceeds from Winter Lights are integral to the continuation of our mission in any year, but particularly so in a year like the one we have all just weathered together. Adaptability was the word of the year in 2020, and adapt we did! In light of COVID-19, our team worked hard to convert our popular holiday light show into a drive-thru experience in just a manner of months — a feat of planning, engineering and communications. There were a few bumps along the road, but our team learned more than one good lesson in the process. We continued to adapt, and you graciously adapted alongside us.

In the end, we saw record attendance at the first-ever drive-thru Winter Lights, with an estimated 105,215 people experiencing the show from the comfort and safety of the more than 30,000 vehicles that passed through our gates between November and January! For comparison’s sake, in 2019 we saw just shy of 45,000 attendees in the show’s walking format. Your attendance brought in more than $260,000 of net revenue, and while this figure may be lower than the nearly $384,000 we raised the year prior, we consider that an incredible success in a year where organizations in our position struggled across the board. We attribute that difference in our position to you, our faithful supporters. Not only did you show up to Winter Lights in record numbers, but from the earliest days of the pandemic, you stepped up to the plate and contributed to our Staff Support Fund. Even into the fall, you gave generously to our fundraising campaign, The Path Forward. We cannot thank you enough.

The lessons we learned in 2020 will help us to put on a better and brighter holiday light show in the year ahead, and the funds we have raised are already helping us to serve our community in 2021. We are excited to watch with you as our newest garden site, Willow Pond, wakes up to its first spring open to the public, and we look forward to finding even more ways to engage learners of all ages with innovative, safe programming in the months to come. We have an incredible lineup of exhibits and events to share with you, as well: Our upcoming outdoor sculpture showcase, Wild Art opens in our gardens April 1; an exhibition of photographs from Thomas Mangelsen, A Life in the Wild, comes to the Baker Exhibit Center in May; and ArborEvenings returns this summer!

Thank you so much for your support of the Arboretum in the past year. You have helped us to connect even more people, plants and places in 2021 and beyond. We look forward to sharing our plans for Winter Lights 2021 with you soon, and in the meantime, we invite you to check out all of the exciting programs we have going on beginning this spring.

“Leo” by Pokey Park, one of the sculptures featured in our upcoming sculpture show, Wild Art.