For more than two decades, island businesses, organizations, residents and visitors have gathered for one of Sanibel and Captiva's most treasured annual events, the Luminary Festival.
This year, the event kicks off Friday, Dec. 3, on Sanibel, and on Saturday, Dec. 4, it moves to Captiva.
Luminary pilgrims make the journey every year, following a trail of little white lights that will lead them to various stops along the way - with the help of a volunteer-run trolley service, of course - where they can enjoy refreshments, music, holiday activities and, perhaps most importantly, connecting with the community. (Though, some of Luminary's younger participants might place a bit more emphasis on the festival's most special of guests, Santa Claus).
CAROL ORR HARTMAN
During last year’s Luminary Festival, Connie Mach, Don Hicks, Gail Corbley and Viki Bernstein were merrily giving out hot coffee to ward off the chill at Sanibel Community Church.
And while Luminary continues to grow in scope - and popularity - with each passing year, many are unfamiliar with the highly anticipated event's simple roots.
Carlene Brennen, co-author of "Randy Wayne White's Ultimate Tarpon Book: The Birth of Big Game Fishing" and a former member of the Sanibel Chamber of Commerce board, remembers how this beloved island tradition got its start.
"After Thanksgiving, all the activity would die out on the islands until the people that were booked for Christmas arrived. Those first two weeks of December were very slow," Brennen said. "We started Luminary to pep up business in that lull just before Christmas. We also wanted to do something to bring people from off island - and also attract people who are already on-island, and so we came up with the idea to do a luminary trail where all the restaurants and shops would participate."
Brennen credits the creation of Luminary to the Chamber of Commerce Board during the mid 1980s.
"I was fortunate enough to work with two marvelous chamber presidents - David Besse and Earl Raven - and a very creative, very active board," Brennen said of her time with the chamber. "When the board approved the luminary event, it just took off. Everybody was so excited about it then and it's turned out to be such a marvelous event all these years later."
And 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," Brennen said. "And it also involved the community - setting out the bags and lighting the candles. That's how most of the service clubs, like Kiwanis, got involved."
As more and more businesses, clubs, churches and organizations started getting involved, the event started attracting more visitors.
"Eventually, 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," Brennen said.
Brennen said that the event is wholly representative of what Sanibel and Captiva stand for - a place that supports small businesses, strives to maintain the islands' unique character and values community.
"Sanibel and Captiva are enchanted islands and you really get a sense of the holiday season because of the ambience of Periwinkle Way and the Village. You don't need snow for it to feel like the holidays. They're already amazing places. That's the way the island was designed - with all the lovely shops and decorations. Whether you're going to Sanibel or Captiva for Luminary, it's such a wonderful experience." Brennen said. "Sanibel and Captiva create marvelous wonderlands for the holidays and I think that's what makes it so special. I loved my time involved with the community and Luminary and I'm glad I got to be part of it. I hope that the Chamber continues with it - it's wonderful for the community."
And while Luminary was created to attract more business to the islands during a typically slow period, Brennen said the annual event has turned into something much more than that - it's tradition.
"The Luminary continues to bring everyone together for a wonderful time. If you attend year after year, you know who has the best punch and the best cookies, so you know where to go first," Brennen said. "And it doesn't just attract visitors and daytrippers - it brings out the residents too. You get to see all your friends and neighbors. It's very special and it makes for a very wonderful holiday season."
To learn more about the Chamber of Commerce and the 26th annual Luminary Festival, go to www.SanibelCaptiva.org or call the Chamber at 472-1080.