Standing amid a sea of lights in downtown Salt Lake City, thousands of people view colorful international Nativities, as well as an almost lifelike depiction of the Savior's birth. They study flickering, floating candles and hundreds of luminarias and lanterns glowing with such words as "hope" and "peace."
The Church's Christmas light display on Temple Square traditionally marks the beginning of the Christmas season. Annually hundreds of thousands of lights — estimated at nearly a million — beckon to visitors who have made visiting the display part of their Christmas tradition.
Church leaders turned on this year's display at dusk Nov. 28 — the day following Thanksgiving — without an official ceremony.
"What you see is sort of a pattern among families," said President Michael Stewart, Temple Square Visitors Center director and president of the Utah Salt Lake City Temple Square Mission. "This is the place to go to kick off the Christmas season and to center on each other."
Last year, more than 900,000 people visited Temple Square during the Christmas season, he said. That is almost one-fourth of the 4 million people who visited the 10-acre site in the heart of Salt Lake City during the entire year. They come celebrating "peace and friendship," said President Stewart.
Once limited to Temple Square, over the years the Church's Christmas display has expanded to cover the area between the Church Office Building, the Church Administration Building and the Joseph Smith Memorial Building. The grounds of the Conference Center and the West Plaza are also decorated. "No matter where you go, if you stop and can get away from the crowd a little ... it is almost spiritual," he said.
Many visitors who enter Temple Square for the first time during the Christmas season have the same reaction, he said. "They say, 'What is this place? What goes on here?'"
Even people who have seen the grounds dozens of times see it differently at Christmas, he added. "The Christmas lights add a new kind of phenomena," said President Stewart. "They accent the temple lights."