“Christmas Lights, Efforts Help Testify of Christ,” Ensign, Dec. 2007, 77–78
Hundreds of thousands of lights shine from Temple Square at the close of each year. Many glow from branches high in chestnut trees while others flicker and float in reflecting pools, but they all are meant to invite visitors to share in the message of the birth of the Savior, the Light of the World.
Volunteers and employees responsible for the Christmas decor and musical programs at Church headquarters log many hours making the grounds an inviting place for the Spirit to reside.
Preparations begin months in advance, with plans for the elaborate design drawn up early each year. Concerts and performances are booked the previous year, and the first lights are hung as early as August in order to have the gardens ready for the end of November.
With millions of people visiting Temple Square each year—many during the Christmas season—groundskeepers take special care to create an environment that helps people feel the Spirit and learn more about the gospel. December is an especially appropriate time to “help people understand that we’re here for the purpose of celebrating the birth of Christ,” said Eldon Cannon, group manager for Church facilities.
Getting that message out requires planning and labor. Each workday from mid-August until the day after Thanksgiving—when the lights are turned on—is thoughtfully planned, and gardeners and light-hanging crews work steadily to accomplish their goal.
“Our workers are just wonderful,” said Kathy Mills, Christmas coordinator for the facilities department. Employees are hoisted in lifts as high as 50 feet to wrap individual tree limbs in colorful lights. The result of all this work, which prompts visitors who visit the grounds to gaze in awe, makes the effort worthwhile, Brother Cannon said. Sister Mills added that dedicated volunteers donate about 2,000 hours of their time to the endeavor.
One of the most prominent trees on Temple Square, the 60-foot cedar of Lebanon, requires more than 1,500 strands of red lights before it’s fully lit. Sister Mills said the enormous, glowing tree is an attraction in itself.
“[People] may be drawn by seeing this wonderfully lit square … but ultimately, behind it all, is a message about Christ,” said Richard Lenz, event coordinator at Temple Square.
Brother Lenz is responsible for overseeing some 400 musical and theatrical programs that occur between November 23 and December 24. An estimated 350 visiting choirs—the majority of which are high school choirs from Utah and Idaho—will perform this year in a variety of locations around Temple Square. The beautiful sights and sounds all combine to create a powerful impression, Brother Lenz said.
When the lights are turned off on New Year’s Eve, the clean-up work begins, and employees work until mid-March to take down all the decorations.
“It’s a real commitment,” Brother Cannon said, but the effort is validated by the opportunities it affords. The yearly event allows members to “teach people about what we believe.”
Coupling visual splendor with personal testimonies makes the experience people have on Temple Square even more powerful. Many are drawn in to see the stunning Christus statue in the North Visitors’ Center, while others hear from missionaries who bear testimony of Christ.
Though the tradition of lighting Temple Square dates back some 40 years, organizers still add new elements to inspire people. Luminarias, a type of Christmas lantern common in Central and South America, line walkways and are as well-loved by guests as the traditional lights, Sister Mills said. The paper bags that surround the lights proclaim messages such as “Joy,” “Merry Christmas,” and “Hope,” Brother Cannon said, and represent more than 100 languages. Organizers have also incorporated multicultural nativity scenes representing Asian, Polynesian, African, Middle Eastern, and Native American cultures.
“I think the message is universal,” Brother Cannon said. “It’s the joy and hope brought by Christ’s coming to the world. That message crosses all barriers.”
Though it’s a lot of work, Sister Mills, Brother Lenz, and Brother Cannon agree that preparing Temple Square for the Christmas season is a special endeavor that puts visitors in the Christmas spirit. The music, lights, gardens, and nativity scenes all come together to help people feel the love of the Lord.
“It’s something bigger than just the pieces,” Brother Cannon said. “The purpose of all of this is to teach people about Christ.”