The Bear Has Grown Up — But You Don’t Have To

Holiday-light magic returns to the North Carolina Arboretum 

Old friends and fresh surprises are on tap for Winter Lights.

Last year was a drag, to say the very least. That’s why, when Winter 2020 came around, local residents — worn down by isolation and unending bad news — lost their minds over three unicorns at the North Carolina Arboretum, Western North Carolina’s 434-acre public garden and education facility. 

The unicorns weren’t real, of course. They were part of Winter Lights, an annual show that invites guests to walk through fanciful displays of holiday lights in the facility’s outdoor gardens. (Last year, because of COVID-19, the event was drive-through only.) But the mythical beasts reminded us that maybe, at some point, life could be rainbows and unicorns again.   

“I think everyone would agree that it’s been a heavy couple of years,” says Mary Rose Ridderbusch-Shearer, show producer. “We want to offer lightness and even silliness, some escapism.”

This holiday season, a lone unicorn will return. Unnamed for now, the beast will be joined by gargantuan gnomes, endearing forest critters, a giant caterpillar, and other fantastical characters. The show’s theme, “Forest and Garden Whimsy,” toys with scale and curiosity, featuring dramatic, whimsical displays in the Arboretum’s winter gardens. It’s like if Roald Dahl reimagined Arrendelle, the Norwegian kingdom from Disney’s Frozen.  

But there were some very serious considerations during this year’s planning of Winter Lights, the largest annual fundraiser for the Arboretum. Though aspects of everyday life are returning to “normal,” COVID-19 is still a threat. To keep families safe and comfortable, Ridderbusch-Shearer made small adjustments: more campfires where folks can warm up and make s’mores while still social distancing, for instance. Also, the Arboretum has expedited the ticketing process so there are fewer face-to-face interactions between staff and guests. Plus, folks won’t have to queue up inside before heading out to the show, as in past years. 

“Storytime at Woodland Cove” will be changing, too. The tradition has historically been hosted inside; this year, however, it will be projected on a screen outdoors. The charming coming-of-age tale is a continuation of last year’s story, following a bear as he ventures far from his home in search of friends and meaning. 

His walkabout takes him right back to where he always belonged — the Blue Ridge Mountains. 

“The bear has grown up,” Ridderbusch-Shearer notes. But that doesn’t mean everyone has to. After all, Winter Lights is about nurturing one’s inner child. That’s why Ridderbusch-Shearer and her team spent 14 months planning and another two months unraveling 1 million holiday lights. 

“We want this to be an escape for folks, even if it’s just for an hour,” says Ridderbusch-Shearer.

Winter Lights at The North Carolina Arboretum (100 Frederick Law Olmsted Way, Asheville) runs Friday, Nov. 19, through New Year’s Day. Tickets will be sold per vehicle, starting at $25 for advance registration for members and going up for peak days and larger vehicles. For information and tickets, visit or call 828-665-2492.

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