The holiday season marks a time when family members fly, drive or ride from all corners of the country and world to come together and celebrate. Over the course of a person's life, holidays will be celebrated in several different ways, from the first year a tiny pair of hands rips open a wrapped box, to the first time that same, larger hand wipes a tear from an eye after noticing one less stocking hung from a mantle than the previous year.

Darien residents will celebrate holiday hope, while offering a supportive hand to those going through personal losses and tough times through the Hope Lights Lives luminary campaign for the seventeenth-consecutive year when people around town light up their streets to benefit bereavement and critical illness programs at Family Centers on Sunday, Dec. 12.

The campaign began in Darien in 1993, when Susan Flanagan adopted the tradition from a New Jersey town near where she grew up.

"I literally started on my street and two other streets in town back in 1993, and it just took off from there," said Flanagan. "I had been volunteering for the Center for Hope, and I thought the candlelight and hope for Christmas time would tie in with the Center for Hope's message for being hopeful in light of serious illness and cancer."

The fund-raising initiative has grown exponentially since her debut effort in the 1990s, which began in her garage and driveway.

"Each year, the project got bigger and bigger, so we kept needing more space."

After the project outgrew Flanagan's driveway, it found a temporary home at a Boy Scout lodge in town.

"There were piles of sand outside that our husbands were literally shovelling into brown paper bags... Then we put the kits together, got volunteers to deliver the kits to block captains, then it got too big to even do that any more," said Peggy Kaminski, a volunteer who headed the initiative when Flanagan handed her the reins.

"My only regret is that we don't have every house in Darien with luminaries in front of it," Kaminski said. The luminary campaign has raised more than $1 million dollars since its local launch 18 years ago, according to Family Centers Development Director Gloria Veeder.

Last year, more than 600 block captains helped sell 6,000 luminary kits, which raised $150,000 for The Den for Grieving Kids and the Center for Hope. This year, the 508 county-wide block captains set 7,000 kits as their goal.

What was once a three-street ordeal is now a county-wide symbol of hope, which stretches to neighborhoods in New Canaan, Greenwich, Norwalk, Rowayton, Stamford, Weston and Wilton, and boasts candle displays at Tilley Pond, around Saint Aloysius Parish and at Binney Park in Old Greenwich.

"It's just great to see the community embrace something like this in the true spirit it was intended -- neighbors getting together, lighting up their neighborhoods and their whole community -- in a very simple, but noticeable way," said Susan Flanagan, who introduced the luminary campaign to Fairfield County in 1993.

"You need hope, and I think the candlelight is the essence of hope at Christmas time," she said.

Block captains around town are selling luminary kits -- which cost $25 and contain 12 tea light candles, 12 white paper bags and 12 plastic candle holders -- and delivering order forms to households on their streets.

The official lighting of the luminary kits will take place at 5 p.m. next Sunday, and special gatherings will be taking place all over Fairfield County to celebrate the white glow.

"Many neighborhoods, mine included, have gatherings that night, from very fancy cocktail parties to standing outside on the cul de sac. Neighbors are really coming together, and in this town, I think that's a good thing," Flanagan said.

Peggy Barthold, who is volunteering as a block captain this year said the luminaries are a special part of her holiday season.

"The glow the bags give off as you're driving down the streets is very touching. It can be a very emotional time for some people, because if this is a reminder of a lost one, or someone fighting a terminal illness ... it can probably really move people," she said.

"As a family, after we gather with our neighbors, we get in the car, when the kids were younger, we'd get them in their jammies, put a DVD in, get a cup of coffee and go driving all around town to see all of the lights," she said. "Certain streets that we would go down, we'd turn off the care lights and just sit for a moment and take it all in.

"It's pretty breathtaking when you just see light after light on a street. It's beautiful," she said.

While Barthold said she hopes to never need the center's services personally, she is glad the event can help make a difference in others' lives.

"It's the true meaning of what the season is about. It makes me look around and think, `Wow. If we're helping one person who's going through a very, very difficult time right now, then it's all worth while.'"

Luminary kits can be purchased at several retailers in town, including Swimm Pool & Patio, Aux Delices, Goldenberry, Nielsen's Florist & Garden Center, The Gardener's Center & Florist, Michael Joseph's Catering and Palmers, or online at www.familycenters.org.