50 years of lights on Temple Square

Crowds filled Temple Square the Friday after Thanksgiving to witness the moment someone flipped the switch to turn on the Christmas lights for the first time this year, on Nov. 27. Every evening from dusk to 10 p.m., Temple Square will have trees filled with hundreds of thousands of tiny lights, Christmas music sung by children’s choirs in 11 languages, child-sized Nativities from cultures around the world and luminaria depicting scenes from the Savior’s life and messages of the Christmas season in various languages.

Eldon Cannon, group manager for Grounds Services on Temple Square, said, “I remember as a little child going with my own family up to Temple Square and seeing the Christmas Lights. That was a favorite family activity to be together and feel the spirit of Christmas.”

He has seen that same joy in other families that visit Temple Square. “It’s nice to be able to have little children come onto the square and have them just delight in sitting on the shoulders of Dad or Mom as they walk around and enjoy that part of Christmas,” he said.

Decorating Temple Square with lights during Christmastime is an annual tradition dating back 50 years. In 1965, President David O. McKay asked arborist J. Leland Behunin, under the direction of head gardener Irvin T. Nelson, to string lights on Temple Square. About 15,000 people attended that first night the lights on Temple Square were lit.

Under the direction of head gardener Peter Lassig, who died earlier this year, the display grew from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of lights. “Peter Lassig was right there in the thick of it,” said Brother Cannon. “The development of the Christmas display really blossomed under his jurisdiction.” The annual tradition has continued to attract millions of visitors from all over the world.

Beginning in August, arborists start putting cables in the trees, eventually wrapping the lights around individual branches. “We like to bring out the natural look of the trees, and so we emphasize that with the way that we wrap the lights,” Brother Cannon said. “It takes a little more time, but we like the way they look.”

Care is taken to protect the trees from as much damage as possible. For instance, the Cedar of Lebanon tree, which stands near the east gate to the Salt Lake Temple, is lit only every other year, according to Brother Cannon. This year, it is lit in red lights.

Every part of the decorations on Temple Square — from the white Nativity scene surrounded by floating lights in the reflecting pool, to the luminaria around the square — is meant to draw attention to the story of Christ’s birth.

“The reason the Church, in my opinion, takes the time to decorate and do what we do and emphasize the holidays is we … really believe the message that we have to share, and that is that Jesus is indeed the Christ,” Brother Cannon said. “This is the message that we want to share with the world, and so we invite them to celebrate with us.”

In addition to the lights in the evenings, Temple Square hosts free concerts in various buildings. Visit templesquare.com/christmas/ for a list of Christmastime events on Temple Square, including the schedule of free concerts.

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