Festival of Lights Sparks the Spirit of Christmas

“Festival of Lights Sparks the Spirit of Christmas,” Ensign, Dec. 2003, 66–67

Festival of Lights Sparks the Spirit of Christmas

The Washington D.C. Temple, a familiar landmark in the United States capital, is most stunning during the Christmas season, when 300,000 lights sparkle from the trees during the annual Festival of Lights. This monthlong event has become a top attraction and Christmas tradition in the Washington area. More than one million visitors, including international diplomats, the media, and representatives of various faiths, have attended this event since it began in 1978. Last year, the festival drew nearly 75,000 people inside the visitors’ center for the event’s 25th anniversary, and an estimated 150,000 people drove through the grounds to see the lights.

From the first week of December to New Year’s Day in January, the nightly activities at the visitors’ center include displays, films, and performances that share the Christmas message while celebrating the world’s diversity of cultures and religions. Themes of brotherhood, goodwill, and shared values resonate with visitors who say they feel a sense of family and peace at the festival.

Organizers and participants in the festival seek the Spirit and inspiration as they work on the festival. “We began each evening with prayer,” recalls K. Gary Garff, former director of the visitors’ center, “to invite the Spirit so we could build bridges to the community.”

Outside, missionaries direct arriving cars and tour buses while a helicopter occasionally hovers for a bird’s-eye view. For some guests, it is the luminous temple spires against the stark December sky that draw them. Others say it is the live outdoor nativity or the wonderful feeling of serenity and respite from the world among the twinkling lights. Elder M. David Knight, director of the visitors’ center, believes that “people’s hearts are softened at this time of year, and the temple becomes a symbol of peace and hope.”

Inside the center, the outstretched arms of an eight-foot-tall Christus statue welcome a colorful cross section of the world—people of all ages and backgrounds in jeans or saris, turbans or baseball caps. Washington, D.C., is truly an international community, drawing people from many nations to work in diplomatic or government assignments or in other professions. Gracious sister missionaries often surprise guests by speaking to them in their native languages. Sister Leung, a missionary from Hong Kong, believes that as we “extend Christ’s love, people feel the Spirit and feel connected to a larger family.” This is a powerful message for those far from home or country.

Dotted about the center are 20 Christmas trees decorated by area stakes. Some reflect scriptural passages, while four international trees are covered with donated dolls, flags, and baskets from the embassies of 84 nations. Visitors also view an array of beautiful crèches crafted by artisans from around the world. Arranged by the center’s Cultural Arts Committee, the exhibit changes yearly and displays nativities made of wood, clay, tin, crystal, porcelain, and amber blown glass.

Each evening’s highlight is a holiday concert in the visitors’ center’s 552-seat theater, featuring Church and community members. Twice each night several musical groups and dancers add their unique spirit to the season.

A full-time missionary couple serves as the visitors’ center directors and plans and supervises the festival, assisted by other missionaries and staff. To open the festival, the center hosts a private lighting ceremony and reception. Guests include ambassadors, members of Congress, and other officials. Each year, an ambassador and a General Authority present holiday messages prior to the Christmas lights being turned on.

Others who assist with the festival include an international advisory group, hundreds of volunteers, and groundskeepers who string the lights with the assistance of area institute members. It is an enormous undertaking. But Ann Santini, area director of international affairs, reflects the feelings of many participants when she says, “This event enables people from every country to feel the Spirit of Christ, and we consider our efforts part of the Church’s gift to the community.”

Gazing up at a statue of Christ, three young girls at the Washington D.C. Visitors’ Center Festival of Lights face the true meaning of Christmas. (Photograph by Page Johnson.)

A doll from Russia adorns one of 20 trees in the Washington D.C. Visitors’ Center. Embassies from around the world donated ornaments for the Festival of Lights. (Photograph by Page Johnson.)