Temple Square Christmas Lights—Honoring the Savior’s Birth for 50 Years

Contributed By Valerie Johnson, Church News staff writer

  • 2 December 2015

Guests watch a Nativity presentation on the south side of the North Visitors' Center during the first night of lit Christmas lights on Temple Square in Salt Lake City, November 27.  Photo by Chris Samuels, Deseret News.

Article Highlights

  • Temple Square gardeners first strung Christmas lights in 1965.
  • The display has grown from thousands to millions of lights.
  • Decorations are meant to draw attention to the story of Christ's birth.

Crowds filled Temple Square the Friday after Thanksgiving to witness the moment someone flipped the switch to turn on the Christmas lights for the first time this year, on November 27.

Every evening from dusk to 10:00 p.m., Temple Square will have trees filled with millions of tiny lights, Christmas music sung by children's choirs in 11 languages, child-sized nativities from cultures around the world, and luminaria depicting scenes from the Savior's life and messages of the Christmas season in various languages.

Eldon Cannon, group manager for Grounds Services on Temple Square, said, “I remember as a little child going with my own family up to Temple Square and seeing the Christmas lights. That was a favorite family activity to be together and feel the spirit of Christmas.” He has seen that same joy in other families that visit Temple Square. “It’s nice to be able to have little children come onto the square and have them just delight in sitting on the shoulders of Dad or Mom as they walk around and enjoy that part of Christmas,” he said.

The sngel Moroni statue on a spire of the Salt Lake Temple is seen amid Christmas lights on Temple Square on November 27. Photo by Chris Samuels, Deseret News.

A man takes a picture of Christmas lights with his cell phone at Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Friday, November 27, 2015. Photo by Chris Samuels, Deseret News.

Serena Bird takes a picture of the Christmas lights on Temple Square on November 27. Photo by Chris Samuels, Deseret News.

Guests gather November 27, the first night the Christmas lights were lit on Temple Square in Salt Lake City. Photo by Chris Samuels, Deseret News.

Decorating Temple Square with lights during Christmastime is an annual tradition dating back 50 years. In 1965, President David O. McKay asked arborist J. Leland Behunin, under the direction of head gardener Irvin T. Nelson, to string lights on Temple Square. About 15,000 people attended that first night the lights on Temple Square were lit.

Under the direction of head gardener Peter Lassig, who died earlier this year, the display grew from thousands to millions of lights. “Peter Lassig was right there in the thick of it,” said Brother Cannon. “The development of the Christmas display really blossomed under his jurisdiction.” The annual tradition has continued to attract millions of visitors from all over the world.

Beginning in August, arborists start putting cables in the trees, eventually wrapping the lights around individual branches. “We like to bring out the natural look of the trees, and so we emphasize that with the way that we wrap the lights,” Brother Cannon said. “It takes a little more time, but we like the way they look.”

Care is taken to protect the trees from as much damage as possible. For instance, the cedar of Lebanon tree, which stands near the east gate to the Salt Lake Temple, is lit only every other year, according to Brother Cannon. This year, it is lit in red lights.

Every part of the decorations on Temple Square—from the white nativity scene surrounded by floating lights in the reflecting pool, to the luminaria around the square—is meant to draw attention to the story of Christ's birth.

“The reason the Church, in my opinion, takes the time to decorate and do what we do and emphasize the holidays is we … really believe the message that we have to share, and that is that Jesus is indeed the Christ,” Brother Cannon said. “This is the message that we want to share with the world, and so we invite them to celebrate with us.”

In addition to the lights in the evenings, Temple Square hosts free concerts in various buildings.

Visit templesquare.com/christmas/ for a list of Christmastime events on Temple Square, including the schedule of free concerts.

 

A family poses for a photo in front of the Salt Lake Temple on November 27, the first night the Christmas lights on Temple Square were lit. Photo by Chris Samuels, Deseret News.

A choir of Temple Square missionaries sings hymns November 27, the first night the Christmas lights on Temple Square were lit this season. Photo by Chris Samuels, Deseret News.

Guests gather in the North Visitors' Center on November 27, the first night this season for the lighting of Christmas lights on Temple Square. Photo by Chris Samuels, Deseret News.

Jocelyn Watson, left, 8, sings Christmas hymns with a Temple Square missionary, Sister Vasquez of Guatemala, on Temple Square on November 27. Photo by Chris Samuels, Deseret News.

A nativity on the reflecting pool in front of the Salt Lake Temple is surrounded by floating lights as part of the Christmas lights display on Temple Square. Photo by Chris Samuels, Deseret News.

Guests enjoy the sights of the Christmas lights on Temple Square on November 27. Photo by Chris Samuels, Deseret News.

Guests gather November 27, the first night the Christmas lights were lit on Temple Square in Salt Lake City. Photo by Chris Samuels, Deseret News.

A nativity on display in front of the Salt Lake Temple on November 27, the first night this season for the display of Christmas lights on Temple Square. Photo by Chris Samuels, Deseret News.