Lights of Christmases past and present: How the Temple Square celebration has changed over 55 years

On Friday, Nov. 27, the lights blanketing the trees, shrubs and grounds of Temple Square will be switched on for the 2020 Christmas season as they have been nearly every year for the past 55 years.

Although Christmas at Temple Square will be a little different this year — visitors must experience the displays from afar, either virtually or from the sidewalks due to COVID-19 and Salt Lake Temple renovations — the lights continue to be a beloved tradition. Here’s a look back at their history.

The first lighting of Temple Square

The Christmas displays had auspicious beginnings. The inaugural lighting of Temple Square took place on Dec. 9, 1965, at 7:45 p.m. The Church News report of the event stated that the night was “providentially balmy,” which, according to the Weather Index, meant it was roughly 50 degrees for the 15,000 attendees who “filled every available square foot of space” in the southeast area of Temple Square.

Throngs streamed through the Square’s South Gate under a sign proclaiming “Good Will Toward Men” as Church President David O. McKay stood ready to set the Square aglow with roughly 40,000 gleaming lights. 

The South Gateway to Temple Square becomes a curtain of light with welcoming words, "Good Will Toward Men" Dec. 18, 1965. Deseret News Archives
The South Gateway to Temple Square becomes a curtain of light with welcoming words, “Good Will Toward Men” Dec. 18, 1965. Deseret News Archives Credit: Deseret News Archives

Elder Richard L. Evans, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles whose familiar voice gave life to the weekly Music and the Spoken Word broadcast, acted as the master of ceremonies for the evening and explained the purpose of the twinkling display. “We thought that Temple Square should be a place where men could come and reflect on the real meaning of Christmas,” he said.  

The evening was the brainchild of the “Official Hostess of the Church,” Irene Staples. In 1988, she wrote an account of some of her service including a paper titled, “Christmas on Temple Square,” which is available at the Church History Library. Staples served as a missionary at the Church’s pavilion in the New York World’s Fair from 1964-65. Upon her return to Salt Lake City, she served as a guide for the Church Information Service on Temple Square.

Read the First Presidency’s 2020 Christmas message

According to a Church History Library blog post titled, “Lighting the World from Temple Square,” the publisher of the Deseret News, Earl Hawkes, regaled Staples with memories of the glittering light displays of downtown Boston, where he had previously lived. The two created a proposal to similarly bedeck Temple Square for Christmas.

Staples recorded that the proposal was met with hearty approval by President McKay, who with a twinkle in his eye, said, “The only thing wrong with it is … why haven’t you done it before?”

The idea, however, was met with a tepid response by the Square’s head gardener, Irvin T. Nelson. A 1997 Deseret News article states that Nelson told the prophet, “President McKay, if we put lights in the trees, it will kill them.”

“That’s how I knew you were the man to do it,” President McKay responded. “You’ll make sure the lights don’t kill the trees.”

Incandescent lights heat up, and when thousands are wrapped around a tree they can produce an artificially warm environment around the tree that disappears when the lights are turned off. The continued freezing and thawing can be harmful to the tree.

Arborist J. Leland Behunin believed it could be done without harming the trees and was assigned to oversee the project.

Jake McElheny, of Layton, carries his daughter, Ella, 2, while his wife, Christi, carries Ella's twin sister, Grace, as they check out the first night of the annual Christmas lights display at Temple Square in Salt Lake City on Friday, Nov. 29, 2019.
Jake McElheny, of Layton, carries his daughter, Ella, 2, while his wife, Christi, carries Ella’s twin sister, Grace, as they check out the first night of the annual Christmas lights display at Temple Square in Salt Lake City on Friday, Nov. 29, 2019. Credit: Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

“My dad had never lit a tree in his life, but said yes, he could do that,” recalled Benjamin Behunin, his son, in a Deseret News interview in 2011.

Leland Behunin had served as a missionary under President McKay in the European Mission from 1923 to 1925. Many years later, after gaining an education and starting his own landscape company, Leland Behunin’s wife died giving birth to their youngest child, and he was left to care for five children under the age of 8. At the advice of his old mission president, Behunin sold everything and moved his family to Salt Lake City where he became acquainted with Temple Square head gardener Nelson. 

A cherry-picking machine helps J. Leland and Ben Behunin place Christmas lights on the tall trees at Temple Square in the late 1960s.
A cherry-picking machine helps J. Leland and Ben Behunin place Christmas lights on the tall trees at Temple Square in the late 1960s. Credit: Deseret News Archive

Hanging Christmas lights at Temple Square those first few years was challenging, Ben Behunin recalled. The first year, Leland Behunin did it himself. When Ben returned from his mission, he helped, but they had no ladders and few tools. Eventually they borrowed a cherry-picker from Brigham Young University, which helped in lighting the bigger trees. 

Leland Behunin and his son continued to wrap the trees with strands of lights until 1982, when the Church took over.

That first year, only eight chestnut and sycamore trees were lighted. At the time, smaller lights weren’t available in the United States, so they were imported from Italy.

A Nativity scene was erected in front of the monuments to Joseph and Hyrum Smith. Staples outfitted the little log cabin that used to sit in the southeast corner of Temple Square with gingham curtains, patchwork quilts, a Christmas tree topped with a yellow star and a mannequin family enjoying the Christmas season. 

On that first mid-December evening, the Deseret News reported that an ardent “ahh” erupted from the audience followed by a burst of applause as President McKay pressed the button that turned the Square into a “Yule-time Fairyland.”

President David O. McKay with the assistance of Pres. N. Eldon Tanner open the first lighting of lights on Temple Square, Dec. 18, 1965. (Don Grayson - Deseret News Archives)
President David O. McKay with the assistance of Pres. N. Eldon Tanner open the first lighting of lights on Temple Square, Dec. 18, 1965. (Don Grayson – Deseret News Archives) Credit: Deseret News Archives

As President McKay pushed the switch, he also addressed the crowd. “God help us that we may have His Spirit, and may His light shine in the hearts of every man, woman and child.”

The Tabernacle Choir sang “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” The audience then joined in singing “Oh Come All Ye Faithful.” The 20-minute ceremony ended with the choir singing “Silent Night.”

Similar decorations and events followed at the Oakland, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., temple grounds and in visitors’ centers in 1978. 

Hundreds wander as they look over Christmas lights on the reflecting pond on Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Utah, Friday, Nov. 26, 2010.
Hundreds wander as they look over Christmas lights on the reflecting pond on Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Utah, Friday, Nov. 26, 2010. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Through the years

Since that first special night, the Christmas displays have attracted millions of visitors, many of whom have made it a beloved family tradition. Through the years, however, the Yuletide event has seen several iterations. 

Starting in 1996 in preparation for the millions of visitors to Utah’s capital city in hosting the 2002 Winter Olympics, the Church made several additions. Trees and bushes on the plaza were lighted and floating candles were placed in the fountains. Fabric and metal luminarias were situated to line the fountains and walkways. Hand-stenciled by volunteers, the fabric luminarias feature messages of Christmas in various languages while the metal luminarias depict different scenes from the life of Christ.

Also in preparation for 2002, the costumes of the life-size Nativity figures were updated and the stable setting was moved to be directly in line with the Christus statue of the resurrected Lord seen through the large windows of the North Visitors’ Center. 

A Church News article from 2001 reported the staging of the Nativity helped to emphasize President Gordon B. Hinckley’s teachings that “There would be no Christmas if there had not been Easter. The babe Jesus of Bethlehem would be but another babe without the redeeming Christ of Gethsemane and Calvary and the triumphant fact of the Resurrection.”

Christmas lights are reflected in the window showing "Christus" statue in the North Visitors' Center on Temple Square.
Christmas lights are reflected in the window showing “Christus” statue in the North Visitors’ Center on Temple Square. Credit: Deseret News

Since 2008, gleaming white figures of Joseph, Mary and the Christ Child are placed in the middle of the reflecting pool on the Church Plaza. Viewed from the east side of the pool, the Holy family sits at the center of the reflection of the Salt Lake Temple.

 A Nativity scene is on display on the Main Street Plaza in Salt Lake City on Friday, Nov. 24, 2017.
A Nativity scene is on display on the Main Street Plaza in Salt Lake City on Friday, Nov. 24, 2017. Credit: Ravell Call, Deseret News

Eldon Cannon, group manager for Temple Square’s ground services, said in a Church News article in 2009 that the addition put a “nice focus on the Savior’s birth and really puts Christ at the center of the celebration.”

This year, of course, marks another historic first for the Christmas displays. Although the lights will still be turned on Friday, Nov. 27, the lights will only be available virtually or from exterior sidewalks and surrounding roads. Sister missionaries will host a virtual event that includes a guided tour of the Christmas lights, which will be broadcast live on ChurchofJesusChrist.org and the Temple Square Facebook page on Dec. 1 at 6 p.m. 

Read more: What will Christmas on Temple Square look like this year?

Although this year’s Christmas at Temple Square experience will be a little different, the purpose this year and every year remains the same, as stated by President McKay on that first mid-December evening in 1965. “Our minds tonight should be on the Babe of Bethlehem whose coming into the world Christmas morning reminds us all that we each should have in our hearts the love of Christ,” he said.

Thousands take in the colors as the lights are turned on at Temple Square in Salt Lake City on Friday, Nov. 23, 2018.
Thousands take in the colors as the lights are turned on at Temple Square in Salt Lake City on Friday, Nov. 23, 2018. Credit: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News