The cold winter nights of the Christmas season come alive at Temple Square in Salt Lake City with concerts, cultural events, Nativity scenes and the famed Christmas lights that adorn the trees and other greenery.
Drawing hundreds of thousands of guests every year, Christmas at Temple Square begins the Friday after Thanksgiving and continues until 1 January. From 5:30 p.m. to about 10:30 p.m., visitors are welcomed onto Temple Square to view the lights, which are slightly different each year.
The preparations for each year’s Christmas light display begin as early as August. Within the first week of work, the campus is lined with electric cables, so that thousands of lights can grace the campus’ numerous trees. Volunteers, missionaries and employees wrap tree branches with lights and set up Nativity scenes until Thanksgiving week, when they test the lights. To preserve the greenery, workers alternate which trees are wrapped with lights each year, and filler trees are used on occasion to fill in areas that need more lights.
The Cedar of Lebanon, located at the Salt Lake Temple’s east gate and one of the largest trees on Temple Square, has benefited from this conscientious approach. Sensitive new leaf growth can be pulled off the branches when wrapping them with lights. The warmth of the lights can also damage buds by creating a false sense of seasons. Putting lights on the tree every other year instead of annually ensures its health.
Sister Emma Ray Riggs McKay, wife of former Church President David O. McKay, is credited with starting the Christmas decorations at Temple Square. At her suggestion, Nativity scenes were first placed on the grounds to focus visitors’ thoughts on Jesus Christ during the holiday season.
The longest-running Nativity scene consists of a set of mannequins dressed as Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus. The clothing was treated to preserve the fabric during the cold months. Later, the mannequins were covered with a plaster mixture, giving them a glossy-white look visitors see today.
Nativity scenes with special appeal to children were added in 2002. Originally displayed during the Salt Lake Winter Olympics, these crèches allow children to view Nativities from different cultural perspectives. Families can stand inches from the child-size sets hailing from New Zealand, Ukraine, Japan and Latin America. Traditional-size Nativity scenes are also displayed in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building lobby and in other buildings around the campus.
Visitors to Temple Square will also see luminaries lining walkways. Crafted of both metal and fabric, each lighted fixture is meant to remind visitors of Christ. The fabric luminaries were hand stenciled by volunteers who then used wood-burning tools to inscribe messages on the fabric. Although the bags represent a wide variety of languages, each contains the message of “peace,” “joy” or “Merry Christmas.” The metal luminaries were originally cans that had nails driven through them. Today, the metal is carved with a scene from Christ’s life found in scripture and then molded to look like a can.
The luminaries surround glittering trees and running fountains, which are heated to prevent freezing. Waterways remain running throughout the winter, and coins thrown in fountains are donated to the Primary Children’s Medical Center in Salt Lake City.
Although Christmas displays on Temple Square end 1 January, decoration take-down lasts until March or April. This ensures that all lights and displays will be ready for the coming year.