A southwestern winter wonderland

The grounds of the Arizona Temple seem to have been transformed into a winter wonderland. But instead of snow-covered pine trees, there are cactus, citrus and palm trees adorned with thousands of festive lights.

The Southwestern vegetation on the grounds of the temple and visitors center is decorated this year with about 380,000 multi-colored lights that were turned on Dec. 3 during a Christmas lighting ceremony here. Giving the word, "Let there be light," was Mesa Vice Mayor Farrell Jensen, upon which the switch was flipped and the grounds became brilliantly illuminated.Offering remarks to the some 7,000 people attending the ceremony was E. Widtsoe Shumway, president of the Arizona Temple. His address focused on the "light of Christ."

After the ceremony, visitors strolled throughout the grounds. Among the many festive attractions in the Christmas display, entitled "Light of Life," are 50 life-size figures, all made of wire except for a ceramic portrayal of the Baby Jesus, which is part of a Nativity. Adorned with lights, the wire figures include the other figures in the Nativity scene, three wise men, camels and a family of deer.

There are also nightly 30-minute musical programs performed by local LDS choirs, and interfaith, community and school choirs. A local LDS Lamanite group is scheduled to perform Christmas Eve.

Nearly a million people are expected to see the lights, which will be up until Dec. 31. Elder Milo LeBaron, director of the Arizona Temple Visitors Center, told the Church News that there is a 30-40 percent increase this year in those seeing the lights who also go into the visitors center. By this time last year during the Christmas season, he related, about 20,000 had gone into the visitors center. This year, some 28,000 have already gone into the building.

"We will come near to having 120,000 go through the visitors center," he said. "That's just in the center. That's particularly significant when you consider the first Monday night after the ceremony we had rain and did not turn the lights on."

To prepare for the influx of people to this year's light display, members from throughout Phoenix Valley began working in the fall to prepare the lights and then string them up.

Todd Nelson, Tempe Arizona Region public affairs director, said: "It is amazing that despite their other Church callings and their professions, the members find literally hours each day to help during the period from about the beginning of November through the first of December."

More than 100 people have helped this year with the decorations, many of whom are families, said Murry Coates, co-chairman of the lighting committee. "We have concentrated on getting families to take a project and do it every year," he said. "We have families that take pride in little projects. We have a family that puts lights on the olive trees. We have another family that does the lights on the visitors center."

Brother Coates, whose wife, Nordessa, is also a co-chairman of the committee, explained that one of his jobs each year is to help decorate the fruit pods on the palm trees. The pods, which are adorned with lights, appear as chandeliers hanging from the trees.

Also volunteering their time are many local members and full-time missionaries who act as hosts and hostesses in the gardens.

The second thing Brother Coates said the committee focuses on is making the lights a community affair - thus the many non-LDS choirs involved several evenings and having the mayor or vice mayor each year give the word to turn on the lights.

Brother Coates said the committee's purpose is to "depict a heavenly theme that portrays Christmas."

Elder LeBaron added: "The people come away really happy they came. They just feel good."

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