Alfresco Dazzle in Encinitas

The San Diego Botanic Garden's December light display gives the spacious grounds plenty of glow.

HOW MANY STRINGS OF LIGHTS... have you draped over the shrub next to your front door? One? Three? None? It's a touchy topic for the enthusiastic decorators who feel passionate about doing it up for the holidays come December. Those who are looking for the most wow from their twinkly trees and the most beauty from a path lined with lanterns are often careful about sharing their sweetest secrets, lest they see the very same lanterns and twinkly trees turn up on a neighbor's lawn next year. It's all in friendly competition, of course, and to make it even friendlier we recommend inviting your neighbor, the decorations devotee who also puts up a blaze of Christmas lights, to join you at the San Diego Botanic Garden. It's a fine place for two chummy Christmas competitors to stroll together, thanks to the pretty plants, the fab flowers, and the thousands of lovely lights that blink on after dark when the sparkliest season of the year arrives. We speak of Garden of Lights, the natural destination's end-of-the-year treat. And a treat it is, for while the Botanic Garden is typically associated with daytime visits, Garden of Lights is all about the nights. Though not every night in December, do note; it opened on Saturday, Dec. 5 and runs through Wednesday, Dec. 30, with a few closed evenings around Christmas.

WHAT WILL YOU AND YOUR NEIGHBOR SEE? "More than 125,000 sparkling lights" around the "37-acre urban oasis," lights that illuminate the native plants and oaks that dot the gorgeous grounds. Several family-nice to-dos are part of the event, from horse-led wagon rides to marshmallow roasting to snow sledding to mulled wine for the grown-ups. Posh pizza and beverages, warm and cold, will be for sale, and the gift shop'll have several items for the gardener you adore (perhaps that's you). Above all, the peace and beauty of the gardens, all lit up by wee bulbs, is a wind-down way to enjoy the go-go-go season. If you do attend with your neighbor, the person you're always trying to outdo, lights-wise, will you both bond at the Garden of Lights? And perhaps come up with ideas about mutually decorating next year? In one fabulous, two-house display? We're just betting that a trip to see some nature sparkle might smooth over any competitive feelings you've had, and make you work as a twinkle-tastic team on your next house-lighting theme.

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