For 24 years, the shimmering rows of Santas, skaters and snowflakes have drawn wondrous stares and triggered untold videos by the more than 2.5 million passersby at the Symphony of Lights, a mile-long array of glittering Yuletide bliss.
Though it has grown into one of the county’s most anticipated holiday events, there have been hiccups along the way. One year, a woman gave birth during a drive-through. Another time, three runaway reindeer — live, not lit-up — crashed through several displays. Then there was the car that caught fire and burned on the course.
On a more heartfelt note, perhaps a half-dozen twosomes have gotten engaged here — spurred, no doubt, by the fetching “kissing couple” attraction.
Here, we round up a handful of event’s more memorable moments.
Where a marriage was made
The sign is tucked away in their garage, a turquoise-and-white keepsake of the night 20 years ago that brought the Bianchinis together. It reads:
Carol, will you marry me? Pat
That’s the message Carol Schuhart saw as she and her boyfriend, Pat Bianchini, approached the kissing couple in her Toyota Camry on Dec. 17, 1998.
“We’d been dating for three years, and my co-workers convinced me an engagement was coming,” Carol said.
On a chilly Thursday night, after dinner at the Macaroni Grill, Pat Bianchini coaxed her into driving through the Symphony of Lights. On the sly, he’d approached Howard County General Hospital, which sponsors the event as a fundraiser. Champagne, friends and a TV crew waited ’round the bend.
“I was fidgeting and checking to make sure I had the ring in my pocket, while trying not to let on,” he said.
As they neared the kissing couple, Carol thought, This would be the perfect place, then dismissed it. Don’t ruin the moment, she told herself.
Then she saw the sign.
“That’s nice,” she said off-handedly. Then it hit her. “Wait a minute … our names are Carol and Pat!”
She turned to her beau, who’d pulled off the road. He was grinning ear to ear.
“The rest of the night was a whirlwind,” she said. “We got out of the car, hand-in-hand. I was crying as he knelt down and people drove past, honking and waving and yelling, ‘Congratulations!’ like we were celebrities.”
And her husband-to-be?
“I was shaking,” he said, “but that might have been from the cold.”
Then Pat proposed. Carol said yes.
A decade and two daughters later, the Bianchinis returned to the site. With the hospital’s blessing, Pat erected the old sign, took a knee and, children in tow, told his wife what she meant to him.
“After 10 years, I didn’t want to leave too much to chance, but I asked, ‘Would you marry me again?’ ” he said.
Over the din of car horns, she said yes — again.
Now, after 20 years, might the Bianchinis repeat the scene?
“When we bring it up, our girls [16 and 13] go ‘ewww’ and change the subject,” their father said. “But it would be great to do something special.”
At 50, he said, “If I got down on one knee, at least I’d have a kid on either side to help me get back up.”
New life at the lights
Taking the children to see the Symphony of Lights is one thing; giving birth there is quite another. Yet that’s what happened on one December night about 10 years ago, Vic Broccolino said.
“A woman from Montgomery County was coming through the line [of cars] when the baby decided it was time to show,” said Broccolino, president of the hospital from 1990 to 2014. “Howard County Fire and Rescue was called, but the father delivered the child.”
The trio was whisked to Howard County General, less than a mile away, where for two days they were treated “like royalty,” Broccolino said. “We gave them rooms, flowers and nice meals. We put on the dog for them.”
What became of the family is not known; hospital representatives cannot locate their records.
More than 20 years ago, to help the event gain traction, organizers held a contest in which first prize was a private, reindeer-driven sleigh ride through the Symphony of Lights.
“The winners jumped in the sled, expecting a nice, calm ride,” Broccolino said. “Along the way, the deer got spooked and charged up a hill, dragging the sled, and got all tangled up in the lights.”
No one was hurt, including the reindeer.
As the beat-up Chrysler minivan entered the one-mile course, organizers winced.
“The car was rattling and humming so loud that we didn’t think it would make it through,” said Brad Canfield, Merriweather Post Pavilion's vice-president of operations, who oversees the show. “We probably should have told the four guys inside that their car wasn’t road-worthy.”
“Halfway through, near the toy soldiers, the thing went up in flames,” Canfield said. “Fortunately, we’d assigned a staff member to follow it and he called the fire department. We cleared a path for them, but the fire engines made their own way and crashed through a bunch of displays.
“The guys from the car took a cab and left. The next morning, a tow truck took the burned-out wreck. That was 15 years ago; it hasn’t happened since.”
Seldom has weather interrupted the show.
“There can be three or four inches of snow on the ground, and still all of these four-wheel-drive vehicles come through,” Canfield said. “On 20-degree nights, I’ve seen families drive up in convertibles, with blankets on and the heat cranked up, drinking coffee and hot chocolate.”
One night, years ago, Mother Nature turned prankster. Volunteers at the ticket booth had collected more than $1,000 ($20-$25 per car, cash only), stacked neatly by the entrance, when calamity struck.
“A snow squall came through and blew the money into Symphony Woods,” Broccolino said. “Half of the staff went scrambling after the cash in the dark. The next day, a team of 10 to 15 people were scouring the woods, looking for bills.”
Some of the dough may be out there still.
IF YOU GO
Symphony of Lights
Open Wednesday-Saturday through Dec. 30, plus Dec. 24-25, 6 p.m.-10 p.m.
Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods, 10475 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia.
$25 per car or van