Half a million lights illuminated the night sky in the nation's capital Nov. 30 as diplomats, congressmen and Church leaders gathered at the Washington D.C. Temple Visitors' Center to open the 34th annual Festival of Lights. Elder L. Tom Perry of the Quorum of the Twelve joined with Mauro Vieira, ambassador of Brazil, to press the switch that turned on a stunning canopy of lights throughout the temple grounds.
Each year 700 volunteers spend four months putting up the lights, the brilliance of which symbolizes the light of Christ. Hues of many colors lead to the visitors' center, where missionaries welcome the public to a month-long Christmas celebration of peace and goodwill through musical performances and seasonal displays. During the first two nights of the festival, ambassadors and their staffs are guests of the Church's Office of Public and International Affairs and of hosts J.W. Marriott Jr., formerly an Area Seventy, and his wife, Donna. This year, 22 ambassadors, plus other diplomats and nine LDS members of congress attended the festive lighting ceremony.
In his introduction of honored guest Ambassador Vieria, Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) noted that of Brazil's population of 200 million, 1.1 million are LDS. Ambassador Vieira, a highly decorated career diplomat, spoke on the theme of unity and the need to embrace diversity, pointing out that lighting candles is a practice in many faiths and cultures. He said they can bring "serenity, focus and comfort," and he called for a dialogue among cultures that would encourage greater acceptance of ethnic, cultural and religious diversity.
"It is on the key concepts of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and promotion of development and social inclusiveness that lies the foundation of a world where civilization, cultures and religions can flourish peacefully side by side and cooperate for the collective well being," he said.
After the ambassador's remarks, the congregation joined the Mormon Choir of Washington under the direction of Gary Clawson in singing Christmas carols. As a special gift to the Brazilian ambassador, Nathan Pacheco, an LDS soloist who served a mission to Brazil, later sang "O Holy Night," in English and Portuguese and "Silent Night" solely in Portuguese.
Brother Marriott then welcomed the guests, noting that wherever Christmas is celebrated, the focus is on the Christ child. He introduced Elder Perry and said he hoped the spirit of Christmas would continue to fill homes after the lights come down.
Elder Perry said that through his travels he has learned that people actually have much in common, particularly the bond of a Heavenly Father.
"Shouldn't we be able to define that commonality in a way that will unite us?" he asked.
Explaining that all people have a point of light within themselves, Elder Perry said each person must choose whether to share that light with others. He recounted his own light-sharing experience when he was a Marine at the end of World War II. As part of the landing force in Saipan, he witnessed war's devastating effects, particularly on the orphans. When he and his fellow Marines started to help feed some of these children, they learned that many had come from a disbanded orphanage.
"These sweet children touched us, even the most battle-hardened Marines," he said. The men found the nuns who once ran the orphanage and took up a collection to help reopen it. They also decorated a tree and wrote letters home asking their families to send toys for the kids.
"A kind Japanese lady taught me how to fold a paper bird," he reminisced. "I made a thousand of them!"
The look in the children's eyes on Christmas morning and the intense feeling of sharing, he said, made him forget his own longing for home. Likewise, in this Christmas season he encouraged everyone to share their warmth and light with each other.
"I hope this lighted display will be a reflection of us," he urged. "We are capable of making a beautiful world together by sharing our best and brightest qualities."
Elder Perry and Ambassador Vieira then stood before a window overlooking the temple and turned on the lights. As it happens each year, a collective breath of surprise acknowledged the landscape that suddenly sparkled in the cold night.
Ann Santini, director of International Affairs, later noted that many visitors commented on the spirit of service they witnessed at the center, from the sisters who greeted them to those who freely gave their time to hang lights and arrange displays.
"This spirit of giving is part of the gospel message," said Elder Don Olsen, director of the visitors' center. "All 27 sisters and the four couples who serve at the center, plus visitors who just walk through the doors feel that spirit. People of all religions tell us they feel warmth and love here and we invite everyone to come and feel it for themselves."
All performances during the Festival of Lights at the Washington D.C. Temple and Visitors' Center are free. The center is open daily 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. through Jan. 1, 2012. Highlights include a life-sized narrated Nativity scene and a creche display of 48 Nativity sets from around the world. Children can also enjoy four international trees decorated with dolls from various embassies in Washington D.C.