The vision of the Temple Square Christmas lights came from David O. McKay's wife, Emma, in 1965. She expressed to President McKay that it would be nice to celebrate Christ's birth in a more obvious way. That year, a modest eight trees were decorated with lights, beginning what is now one of the most anticipated holiday traditions.
Today, hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world come to Temple Square during November and December to walk the 10 acres of scenic light displays.
"It's really nice to hear and see families come together and walk the Square," said Eldon Cannon, group manager of grounds services at Temple Square. "It gives them the opportunity to reflect on what the holiday season is really about."
But how did eight simple trees turn into 10 acres of lights? The 2002 Winter Olympic Games played a big part. That year, the Temple Square grounds crew introduced luminaries, a Latino tradition of placing candles in paper sacks, and the much-loved nativity scenes from around the world. These special nativities, called the children nativities because they are the size of children, represent world cultures such as New Zealand, Japan and Alaskan Indians.
"It's important to understand that we don't do it to draw attention to ourselves, but to tell others that we have a message," Cannon said. "The purpose of the lights is that we really believe our message, and that is Jesus is the Christ and that he was born."
In order to share this message, employees and volunteers work extremely hard. The process of putting the lights up and taking them down is quite arduous, taking almost eight months in all. The cabling starts going up in August, and once that is finished, the crew works full-time until the Friday after Thanksgiving, stringing thousands upon thousands of lights.
This year there is a new area to display the large, all-white nativity scene. Located between Main St. and the temple, the position allows for a more artistic, emotional display of the scene. Cannon said it looks like it is floating on the water of the reflecting pool, really drawing attention to it. He said it helps people focus on Christ.
With the throngs of people coming to see the lights, a great deal of missionary work is bound to go on. "There is a wonderful spirit here during the Christmas season, both outside and within the buildings," said Barbara Despain, director of Church Building Hosting. "The number of people we have in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building to see the movie Joseph, Prophet of the Restoration doubles, and sometimes even triples during December."
Visitors of all faiths can't help but feel the spirit while at Temple Square. "Visitors' hearts are touched by the beauty of the music and the lights, by the recreation of the nativity, and by the feelings they experience as they spend time in the buildings," Despain said.
Even if you can't make it to Temple Square this year, you still may have the chance to do something similar. Other temples around the world celebrate the birth of Christ with their own light displays. Cannon said temples in Africa, Arizona, and other locations have called for advice on how to create their own holiday light display. More information can be found at www.lds.org.