Charles Kocher, Pilot staff writer

Rain or shine, the volunteer elves will go to work in Azalea Park today, beginning to transform the formal gardens into the temporary wonderland called Nature's Coastal Holiday.

You're welcome to join in the fun; we will be there until mid afternoon.

If you have ever put up your own holiday lights, you know the chores involved. There are old lights to test and sort, new lights to unpackage, and extension cords to untangle.

You also know the realities of working outside at this time of year. Bring your rain gear, rubber boots and gloves, because it could be wet and cold. Then again, dress in layers, because the sun could break through to make it a really pleasant day.

It's my 24th year of helping with a public holiday lights display. A friend got us involved in the very first event at Shore Acres State Park outside Charleston. (If you have never gone to see it, make plans.)

When we moved to Brookings, the Nature's Coastal Holiday event was just starting up. It wasn't too hard to get involved.

Even with all that experience, starting to actually string the lights was somehow intimidating.

What color lights? On which branch of which bush or tree? Plugged into which extension cord, which is plugged into which power stake?

At home, most of us now have a fairly set routine of which lights go where. It's the stuff of which holiday traditions are built. Growing up, for example, my job always included the red and white lights around the edges of the roof. Meanwhile, my more agile brothers climbed the trees which always hosted our homemade star and angel sculptures.

Now, in our own home, I've got a set of special lights that I always use for the same rhododendron every year, and my own homemade star has a traditional spot on the roof that makes it visible to traffic on North Bank Chetco River Road.

As the years go on, some of that same tradition works into the public displays, and often with very good reasons and results.

Nature's Coastal Holiday started with strings of pink and white lights that mimicked the spring colors of the century old azalea bushes, for which the park is named.

Strings of white lights twined in garlands line the sidewalks to guide crowds through the park, keeping feet off the spring bulbs that can start to poke through in December.

Ropes of green lights strung vertically help create the illusion of walking down into an Undersea Garden.

The animal sculptures that are a crowd favorite will all be back at Azalea Park, but the crew that places them tries to move them around every year so that you never know where the wolf, bear or coyote might be hiding.

Those traditions, however, only cover a small portion of the overall work. For much of the park, there is no pre-planned design or map of where to put what. There still comes a time when someone - it could be you - has to decide what color lights should go on which bush, or how the lights should be strung or wrapped on which tree.

In all those small decisions, coupled with hours of effort, the magic of the show is created.