MESA, Ariz. — For 25 Christmas seasons, the lighting of the Mesa Arizona Temple gardens has been a holiday tradition for many who come to enjoy the lights and feel the spirit of this sacred place. Over time, what started out as a small display of 5,000 lights has grown to one of the largest Christmas lighting events in the Southwest with 750,000 lights and an estimated 1 million visitors annually.
Making this spectacular celebration possible are thousands of volunteers behind the scenes who, for the past quarter of a century, have given of themselves during this busy time of year and find joy in being a part of something that brightens the holidays for so many.
"I just love it," said Mike Palagi, who has untangled strings of lights and ascended ladders countless times during the past six years. "I love being on the temple grounds and when the lights are on to see the reaction of people, especially the kids."
Brother Palagi of the Mesa Arizona Kimball East Stake is in charge of the large blue lights that outline the roof of the visitors center as well as four columns near the temple. It takes him three to four days to get the job done. He said that on any given Saturday during the month of November there are hundreds of volunteers putting up lights. "I've got a bird's eye view from the roof," he said. "I can see all the people working."
Sometimes he brings along helpers, other times he works alone. This year Brother Palagi brought along some youth from his ward to help.
Allison Beckert, 14, said she spent about two hours replacing burned-out bulbs on strands of lights. "It was fun," she said. "It made me realize what a collective effort this is; that people give a couple of hours here and a couple of hours there and all together it makes this awesome thing."
Jane Buehrle and her son, David, also helped with the lights this year. Many times in the past they have volunteered to help the temple gardeners plant flowers or pull weeds. This year as they drove by the temple one afternoon they saw people working on the lights and they stopped to offer their help. They came back three other evenings and were put to work each time. They hung lights on bushes around the visitors center and on trees near the temple.
"It's just rewarding to be a part of this," said Sister Buehrle of the Mesa Arizona Kimball Stake. "We know that people are going to come and see how beautiful this is."
David, 11, said he enjoyed working on the lights with his mom. "She makes it fun," he said. "We laughed and talked while we worked."
Julie McFarland, who, with her husband, Kirt, oversees the lighting committee, said that many people offer their help each year. "They want to be a part of it," she said. "They have such good feelings to be involved in something that has such an impact on the community."
She explained that 34 stakes were involved this year and estimates that 800 volunteers spent nearly 10,000 hours, making this event the largest known volunteer-driven Christmas lighting display in the country.
Five committees work under the direction of Bill Romney, who is the general chairman. The event is overseen by Gordon Hall, Tempe Arizona South Stake President.
Some volunteers start working as early as the spring when they begin inventory on the lights. The majority work feverishly during November transforming the temple grounds into a breathtaking display. Others help with security or planning the nightly concerts.
Culmination of the work comes the day after Thanksgiving when the lights are officially turned on. Those behind the scenes breathe a sigh of relief and utter a prayer of thanks when the switch is flipped and the grounds are illuminated without a glitch. That, they believe, is a miracle in itself.
This year's celebration began with the lights being turned on by Mesa's Mayor Keno Hawker. The Arizona Mormon Choir performed and Elder John H. Groberg of the Presidency of the Seventy spoke briefly to the crowd.
Many people also went inside the visitors center to see displays and videos. Elder Bruce Christensen, director of the visitors center, said that during the Thanksgiving weekend more than 5,000 people came inside each night, nearly double the amount of last year.
"There is a lot more interest to come inside," he said. "We are really pleased." He attributes the increase to the display of 15 nativities from around the world and people who are still interested in seeing the remodeled visitors center that opened last November.
The Christmas lighting event, now titled "Celebrate the Birth of Christ in Light and Music," was the brainchild of former temple President L. Harold Wright.
He saw the project as a "gift to the community," and one that would add a spiritual element to the celebration of Christ's birth.
During the first season the display included 5,000 clear and blue lights, mostly around the visitors center and reflection pool where electrical outlets were available.
For 15 years, Murray and Nordessa Coates were assigned the task of developing, designing and directing the lighting celebration and helped it to grow each year.
Lights covered trees and shrubs and even tall palm trees. Early on, men climbed the palms to place the lights and "cherry pickers" were later used to reach the trees that were as high as 65 feet.
In 1985, when a new sprinkler system was installed in the temple gardens, underground electrical lines were added to make more outlets available so lights could be placed throughout the gardens.
A live nativity scene with a camel and other animals was presented in 1984 and again in 1985. That same year ABC's television morning show, "Good Morning America," called the lighting of the Arizona Temple gardens one of the three "must see" holiday lighting extravaganzas in the United States.
Music was added to the celebration as various local musicians began giving nightly concerts. This tradition continues today as free concerts are presented each evening. The groups, representing a variety of cultures and musical styles, include family choruses, school and church choirs, and various private ensembles from all over Arizona.
By the early 1990s, more than 300,000 lights adorned the temple grounds and chartered buses from around the valley were flocking to the display each night. It was reported that bus drivers even took side trips off the nearby highway so their passengers could get a glimpse of the spectacular scenery.
The display now includes an European crafted life-size Bethlehem scene with a nativity depiction and a taped voice narrative, and on the front lawn are portrayed three lighted wise men with their camels. This year more lights were added, making it the biggest display ever.
The temple gardens lighting event, located at 525 E. Main St. in Mesa, runs nightly through Dec. 31 from 5:30 p.m. until 10 p.m.