Washington D.C Temple Visitors’ Center Celebrates Festival of Lights
Contributed By Page Johnson, Church News contributor
- The festival draws over 100,000 visitors each year.
- Elder Bruce A. Carlson of the Seventy and the ambassador of Bulgaria were among special guests.
“The Festival of Lights gives us a precious opportunity to become lights on a hill ourselves as we share the love and message of Jesus Christ during the Christmas season.” —Elder Harden R. Eyring, director of the Washington D.C. Temple Visitors’ Center
With the press of a button, a blaze of color radiated through the rain-drenched landscape outside the Washington D.C. Temple Visitors’ Center on December 2 to herald the opening of the annual Festival of Lights. Elder Bruce A. Carlson of the Seventy joined the ambassador of Bulgaria, Elena Poptodorova, to switch on more than 600,000 lights that will illuminate the night sky above the temple until January 1.
The festival is a long-standing tradition in the nation’s capital, drawing over 100,000 visitors each year to nightly musical performances, Christmas exhibits, and a spectacular array of lights. It begins with a two-night lighting ceremony that brings together ambassadors and other diplomats and dignitaries for an evening of music, inspiration, and good will.
Just as they have for the past 37 years, hosts J. W. Marriott Jr. and Donna Marriott once again greeted each guest. After viewing an international nativity exhibit, the distinguished group then gathered before windows overlooking the temple to hear messages from Elder Carlson and Ambassador Poptodorova, sing carols with the Mormon Choir of Washington D.C., and enjoy solos by Lexi Walker, 12, from Utah.
Ann Santini of the Church’s Office of Public and International Affairs welcomed the diplomats and their families, inviting the children to lead everyone in singing “Jingle Bells.” In his Christmas message, Elder Carlson noted how the diverse gathering shared a common purpose.
“The combined presence of so many international dignitaries here with us tonight speaks volumes for the sense of community that we all feel despite the troubles that seem to plague our wonderful world,” he said.
He thanked the foreign ambassadors for welcoming the Church’s ambassadors to their countries—the 88,000 young men, young women, and couples who currently serve as missionaries in 150 countries. They come, he said, spreading messages of hope, love, and unity.
Elder Carlson also encouraged people to turn their hearts over to the spirit of Christmas, as a father named Robert May did one Christmas when his wife was dying and he wrote a story for his grieving daughter. That simple story, “Rudolf, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” eventually became one of the most popular Christmas stories and songs of all time.
Guest of honor Ambassador Poptodorova, who is on her second tour as Bulgarian ambassador to the U.S., enthusiastically welcomes Church missionaries into her country. She explained how she worked with one of her first friends in the Church, former Senator Gordon Smith of Oregon, to facilitate missionary travel to Bulgaria. She continues to admire the missionaries’ legacy of service to people in other countries and their “unique spirit of volunteerism.” Pointing to Brigham Young University as one of the “finest universities in the nation and the world,” she said its most important major is in goodness, tolerance, and integrity.
The ambassador also observed how her country has emerged from a history of struggle and suffering. “After a series of twists in our history Bulgaria is finally in its right place—a member of the European Union and NATO and a strategic ally of the United States,” she said, explaining that the texture and backbone of official relationships between two countries is developed through people-to-people contacts. “I am happy to say that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is an important element of this texture,” she added.
She also suggested that the thousands of lights on the temple grounds signify peace, hope, tolerance, and understanding. “I believe that each one of us, every human being, carries deep down in the soul one’s own unique and special light,” she said. “This light needs to be preserved with gentle care and sympathy. This is what the festival is all about—thinking of one another, taking care of one another in the name of God.”
Brother Marriott, who served as an Area Seventy, affirmed that message by speaking of a starry night 2,000 years ago when the Light of the World was born. “He will beam His light into our souls,” he said, encouraging people to use that light to help the less fortunate, forgive, and gladden the hearts of others.
The 30 sister missionaries and four couple missionaries assigned to the visitors’ center reflect that light every day. Over the next month, they will welcome visitors and share their testimonies before a gleaming Christus statue. “All year, we stay involved with the community and get to know many leaders and citizens from other countries,” pointed out Elder Harden R. Eyring, director of the visitors’ center. “But the Festival of Lights gives us a precious opportunity to become lights on a hill ourselves as we share the love and message of Jesus Christ during the Christmas season.”
Attending this year’s lighting ceremonies were diplomats from 23 countries, as well as many members of Congress, including Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who gave the invocation, and Senator Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who introduced the Bulgarian ambassador.