This story originally ran on LDS Living in December 2017.
Visiting Temple Square at Christmas time is on a lot of people's bucket lists—and not just for Latter-day Saints. The lights display on the Salt Lake Temple's grounds makes December a favorite time for visitors.
One couple who are not members of the Church come every year all the way from North Carolina to see the Christmas displays, "Because no one celebrates Christmas like the Mormons do."
And while Temple Square always has surprises in store no matter when you go, at this time of year, there's something extra magical about this wonder of the Latter-day Saint world when it's adorned with beautiful nativities and decorated with glowing lights on every tree, bush, and building. It's a magic that brings peace. As Elder Richard L. Evans said at the first lighting ceremony in 1965, "We thought that Temple Square should be a place where men could come and reflect on the real meaning of Christmas."
To make this picturesque scene isn't easy—check out these 20 unexpected things about Temple Square at Christmastime.
The South Gateway to Temple Square becomes a curtain of light with the welcoming words, "Good Will Toward Men" on December 18, 1965. Photo from Deseret News.
1. The lights on Temple Square almost didn't happen. In the fall of 1965, when Deseret News publisher E. Earl Hawkes proposed the idea to President David O. McKay, the head gardener at Temple Square was worried that heat from the lights would harm the trees. After much debate, President McKay decided to go ahead with the project (some say at the urging of his wife, who thought the Church should do more to share their beliefs at Christmas).
The Cedar of Lebanon (2013). Photo from Church Newsroom.
2. The first year of the Temple Square lights, arborist J. Leland Behunin spent six weeks of solo work to hang 40,000 lights—he didn't even have a ladder. An estimated 15,000 people came for the first lighting ceremony on December 9, 1965.
3. The well-known cedar of Lebanon,* one of the largest trees on Temple Square, boasts 75,000 red lights, but is only lighted every other year. This is done because each year it's wrapped, the delicate old tree gets needles and limbs knocked off during the wrapping and unwrapping process.
*Brought to Temple Square as a seedling by a woman who had come back from a trip to Lebanon, the tree was given to the head gardener and planted near the east gate. Seventy-five years later it stands at 70 feet tall.
4. Since 2009, the lights on Temple Square have been changing from incandescent lights to LED. The LED lights save on energy and money, consuming a fraction of the electricity that the incandescent lights would, and they are easier to maintain. They're also better for the trees because they don't produce as much heat as incandescent lights--which means less damage to the trees' structure and less bugs and disease.
5. The color theme of the lights is chosen to remind people of the Savior (the Light of the World)--not necessarily to remind them about Christmas. Jennifer Udy, a temple square gardener,explains that the temple lights are meant to be “in harmony with each other and with the Temple Square spirit.”
6. In the 1940s, the lights on Temple Square, even flood lights on the grounds, were turned off. Laura F. Willes, author of Christmas with the Prophets, shares: "I was almost horrified to read that Salt Lake was dark at night during WWII and that the temple wasn’t even lit up. And then to have the ceasefire announced and Heber J. Grant instructing to have the lights turned on again. He died only days after that.”
7. Later, in 1973, the Christmas lights on Temple Square were turned off again. This was in response to U.S. president Nixon's request to conserve energy during the energy crisis.
8. In 2002, the lights were left on throughout the Winter Olympic Games hosted in Salt Lake City. This was done to share the message of Christ with an even greater global audience.
9. Workers start putting up the lights in August every year, and it takes two and a half months to take them back down—which means the lights are on Temple square more than half the year. Though time-consuming, this is done because trees grow anywhere from 18 inches to 6 feet each year, and the lights used one year might not fit the tree properly the next.
Photo from Mormon Newsroom.
10. When selecting the first nativities to be displayed on Temple Square, Church officials couldn't find one that fit Latter-Day Saint beliefs (for example, the angels couldn't have wings). When they finally found one, it was placed outside the North Visitors Center. However, after the weather took a heavy toll on the set, officials saved the display by coating the pieces in a special white fiberglass paint. This is the creche now displayed on and around the reflecting pool in front of the temple.
11. Visitors can listen to a recording of the Christmas story as told by President Thomas S. Monson at the nativity located between the Tabernacle and the North Visitors' Center. You can listen every 15 minutes during visiting hours each day until New Year's Eve.
12. At least six world nativities decorate the grounds. These beautiful displays pay homage to the worldwide nature of the Church. Some of the ethnic nativities include features from New Zealand, Native American culture, Oriental culture, and South America.
13. In the North visitor's center, the paintings of Christ on the main floor have been replaced with image stills from the Church's movie, The Nativity:
14. The Church purchases "stand-in trees" that are planted only during the Christmas season. These young trees are purchased from the State Educational Trust Fund Lands, and the proceeds are donated to the state educational system. Then, the trees are wrapped in lights and temporarily planted on Temple Square for the Christmas season. This is done to add a touch of light where groundskeepers want it, and to protect the permanent trees on Temple Square from damage causing by wrapping and lighting.
Photo from Mormon Newsroom.
15. Tiny electric candles float on several ponds throughout the Church campus, including in front of the Salt Lake Temple and at the Church Office Building. Every light on the square invites visitors to remember the Light of the World.
This year's luminaries placed around Temple Square. Photo from Mormon Newsroom.
16. Beautiful and detailed luminaries are placed throughout temple square, including the lawn in front of the Temple and outside the Church Office Building. The luminaries are intended to offer messages of peace, joy, and love.
Flowers found at last year's temple lights display. Photo from Mormon Newsroom.
17. Even during the winter months, flowers can be found on Temple Square, thanks to careful groundskeeping. Keep an eye out, especially after it snows, for rare winter roses and other foliage.
18. The Lion and Beehive Houses are decorated with traditional pioneer Christmas decorations.You'll see unexpected items like fruit in the decorations; pineapples were a welcoming sign during that era, so they are incorporated into the theme. Candles will also be aplenty--the predecessors to the twinkling Christmas lights we have today.
Photo from Temple Square Hospitality.
19. Free hourly concerts are available throughout the Christmas season on Temple Square. You can attend concerts in the Assembly Hall Tuesday through Sunday at 5:30, 6:30, 7:30, and 8:30 each evening. Also Tuesday through Saturday at the North Visitors’ Center, concerts are performed at 6:00, 7:00, and 8:00 p.m. Here on a Monday? Don’t worry. You can see them in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building Monday through Saturday 1:00 to 5:00, every hour on the hour. But watch out! These concerts all end on December 23rd. Get the full schedule here.
20. On New Year's Eve, more free performances are held. Each New Year's Eve there are free events on Temple Square, including sing-alongs and firesides. Get the full schedule here.