KENSINGTON, MARYLAND — “The Christmas season is a wonderful time to use the words, ‘thank you,’ and to share a little bit more love to God and to all humanity,” Elder Ronald A. Rasband of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles told dignitaries at the opening ceremony of the Festival of Lights at the Washington D.C. Temple Visitors’ Center on Tuesday, Dec. 3.
The event is a popular Washington area tradition that attracts thousands of visitors worldwide for free nightly musical performances, displays of international Nativity sets and dolls, and a full-sized, narrated Nativity outside.
As they have for the past 42 years, J.W. Marriott Jr. and his wife, Donna Marriott, hosted ambassadors and other diplomats, religious and community leaders, and members of Congress to the opening night activities. Mauri Earl, director of International Affairs in the Church Office of Public and International Affairs, conducted and Rep. John R. Curtis, R-Utah, gave the invocation.
The highlight of the evening was the lighting of the temple grounds when Elder Rasband joined Her Excellency Hunaina Al Mughairy, ambassador of the Sultanate of Oman, to press the switch that illuminated more than 400,000 sparkling lights around the visitors’ center.
Before introducing Elder Rasband, J.W. Marriott spoke about the nature and mission of the Savior, which he said was one of “love, salvation, healing, forgiveness and peace.” Looking at a nearby luminescent statue of Christ, he reminded the audience that the Lord Himself had said, “I am the light of the world.”
Although Elder Rasband had prepared remarks, he later explained that he felt moved to express the thoughts of his heart at that moment. He blessed all members of the audience in their own faith traditions as they celebrate this season of peace.
Sharing his personal witness of Jesus Christ, Elder Rasband said the Lord knows no boundaries as King of kings, Lord of lords, and the Prince of Peace.
He especially hoped people would find time for gratitude and service, encouraging people to go into the world to “do good, to build faith in Almighty God, and to help bring others to a happier place.”
In that vein, he stopped to thank the Marriotts for hosting this event, noting their years of service “to the Church as well as all of humanity.” He also thanked Church volunteers who had rendered aid and served the people after the recent Albanian earthquake. He has traveled extensively and told the story of going to his 50th high school reunion and being the one who had been to the most countries — 138 so far. Those travels have helped him develop a greater appreciation for the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of men and women.
Pointing out that there are 168 Latter-day Saint temples around the world, Elder Rasband said that temples are not unique to the Latter-day Saint faith. Although the Washington D.C. Temple is currently under renovation, he invited everyone to tour the temple during an open house period that will take place before its rededication.
Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah introduced Ambassador Al Mughairy and noted she is the first Arab woman appointed to serve as ambassador to the United States. He also referred to the theme of light for this event.
“Light is the symbol of joy and of life-giving power, and the Festival of Lights represents the victory of light over darkness, of hope over despair, of good over evil,” he said.
Ambassador Al Mughairy has been bringing her family to the Festival of Lights over the years because it has become a family tradition.
“Traditional celebrations are some of the core aspects of any cultures,” she said, adding that “traditions, treasured memories and shared hopes are the ties that bind families together.”
This year, her granddaughter and the daughter of the ambassador of Yemen epitomized the feelings of goodwill in the room as they belted out Christmas songs with the joy of children.
Especially important to Ambassador Al Mughairy is that festivals can provide time to simply regroup.
“On a more complex level, they provide a culturally sanctioned reason for everyone to stop, to take stock of ourselves, to acknowledge who we’ve chosen to be in our families and communities, to underline for ourselves how we are doing, to make new promises to self and others.”
She discussed some of Oman’s history and its role as a peaceful trader throughout the centuries, “lending a hand to all,” and teaching “that no nation can isolate itself from others if it seeks to properly serve its citizens.”
In particular, she praised a documentary called “Golden Road: The Ancient Incense Trail,” which provided insight into Middle Eastern peoples who “created a prosperous elevated society, built largely on the trade of incense.”
One of the displays in the Washington D.C. Temple Visitors’ Center details some of this story.
She stressed Oman’s religious tolerance and a sultanate that guarantees both religious and intellectual freedom to citizens and residents. Her work as chair at the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center in Washington D.C. — one of several such cultural centers around the world — further promotes better understanding of U.S. and Omani shared history, leading to what she calls a “dialogue between religions.”
In a visit to Utah in 2006, she and her husband, Fuad Al Hinai, a career diplomat, visited with students at Brigham Young University and the University of Utah and learned about the Church’s humanitarian outreach. From the earthquake and tsunami in East Asia to the recent earthquake in Albania, she said the Church and the missionaries were there to help as “lights in the darkness.”
The Washington DC Temple Choir performed several numbers under the direction of Gary Clawson, who marked 20 years as the conductor. Sandra Turley performed as soloist, with Jan Rothman as violinist and Linda Pain accompanist.
As the evening concluded, Elder Robert Chappell and Sister Jan Chappell — the visitors’ center directors, from Houston, Texas — stood at the door to say goodbye as missionaries sang outside.
“What a glorious way to begin the annual Festival of Lights — in a magnificent setting with so many wonderful people,” Sister Chappell said. “For the missionaries who serve here, it was a chance to share their spirit and love with visitors from around the world, and to feel that love reciprocated with kind smiles and sincere handshakes. Everyone was enriched.”
If you go:
The Festival of Lights at the Washington D.C. Temple and Visitors’ Center is free and runs from Dec. 5 through Jan. 4, from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. The temple is located near exit 33 of the Capital Beltway at 9900 Stoneybrook Drive in Kensington, Maryland.
On display are 84 creches from 66 countries, as well four large trees covered with dolls from around the world. Nightly performances include bell ensembles, choirs, orchestras and more. A life-sized Nativity with narration is located on the grounds.
About 640 volunteers donated more than 2,560 hours to set up all the decorations, plus contract workers spent another 2,400 hours to put up the lights.