There's just something magical about the holidays. It could be the home baked goodies, bountiful presents or colorful lights. Oh, those millions of twinkling lights.
Nowhere are those festive lights more evident than Ethel M Chocolates' annual Holiday Cactus Garden.
For the 18th year, caretakers of the 3.5-acre botanical gardens have created a winter wonderland with more than 500,000 twinkling, colorful lights and holiday décor. The display is breathtaking and leaves visitors in awe of its beauty as well as the skill it must take the crew to get those thousands of lights on the prickly plants.
When asked how they accomplish the task without getting poked, the answer is simple: "We don't," said Steve Bowdoin, custodian of the garden, displaying the many scrapes and cuts on his arms like they are prized trophies.
"We have made our own hooks and tongs. There's no tool to hang lights on a cactus that you can go into a store and buy," he said with a smile.
Additionally, Bowdoin and his crew of three go through two pairs of work gloves daily.
"Joshua trees stab us like razors," he said.
The botanical gardens feature more than 230 species of cactus, succulents and drought-tolerant plants.
In addition to the holiday lights, the gardens are decorated with 27 holiday-themed inflatables, wreaths and lighted figurines including reindeer, snowmen and penguins. Bowdoin even has an area where the lights are timed and coordinated in sync with music.
New this year will be colorful meteor lights that appear to be falling out of the trees.
Preparing the gardens for the holidays begins the first week of September when Bowdoin and his crew get the lights and decorations out of storage. Each strand of lights is tested to make sure it is functioning properly, with any broken or burned-out bulbs replaced. Actually putting the lights on the cacti begins the first week of October.
"We start with the cactus and low-level plants. That takes between three and three-and-a-half weeks and then we start with the overhead trees," he said.
The finishing touch is putting up all the wreaths and decorating the garden's gazebo.
"We do the gazebo last so it's a surprise. It's Santa's home so it has to be new and refreshed every year," Bowdoin said.
Additionally, the lights are gradually being replaced with LED strands, which are more energy efficient, durable and vibrant. This year, 50 percent of the lights in the display will be LEDs, he said.
Bowdoin said a plan is created each year to give the gardens a different look, as well as make sure the colorful strands are properly situated.
"I have to plan because I know the number strands we have of each color. That way we don't end up with one section devoted to just green or blue."
He also has to ensure that there are enough clear strands to put in the trees. These lights help make the pathways more visible to holiday visitors.
An unusual side effect of this is a foggy look to the gardens each night. According to Bowdoin, there's really no fog in the gardens, it's just the spectrum of light passing through the atmosphere, kind of like a prism.
"It's not bright enough to be clear," he said.
Before becoming the garden's primary caretaker, Bowdoin spent 25 years in charge of facilities at the factory. When he retired, he returned to the factory to take care of the plants.
"It's what I want to do. I don't think that day will ever come (when I want to completely retire)," Bowdoin said.
"The garden is our life -- especially my life. I'm here every day of the year, even Christmas morning. And I never go on vacation at Christmas time. This is fun, fun, fun."
Bowdoin said the garden is such a peaceful spot. "You forget the rest of the world is out there."
He said he also enjoys interacting with the hundreds of people who visit the garden each day, answering their questions and teaching them about cacti, succulents and drought-tolerant plants.
"Most of our visitors are not from Nevada and they don't know about cactus."
The holiday light display, adjacent to the Ethel M chocolate factory in Henderson, is open to the public at no charge from 5-10 nightly Nov. 16 through Jan. 1. The gardens also are open during the day. The inflatables are on and decorations accent the grounds making it festive even without the lights.
Throughout the season, local school choirs will perform holiday favorites in the garden and Santa will make appearances on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings through Dec. 23. The self-guided factory tour and Ethel M retail space also will be open during Holiday Cactus Garden hours. Ethel M is marking its 30th anniversary in Southern Nevada this year.
The factory is located at 1 Sunset Way, Henderson. Visit www.ethelm.com for more information.