Utah County has its share of holiday entertainment. But if your Christmas plans involve a trip over the river and through the woods to Salt Lake City, the Temple Square lights are a can’t-miss. Much of the display is familiar to Utah County families—the beauty of the lights, the nativity on the reflecting pool and the life-size nativity. But a lot happens behind the scenes that isn’t so obvious.
Most people don’t know where the nativity on the reflecting pool came from, how the display supports local schools, or exactly how many lights grace the Cedar of Lebanon. Here are five illuminating facts about Utah’s most famous bright spot.
1. Nativity on the reflecting pool
In the early days of the lights at Temple Square, Church grounds officials had some difficulty finding nativities that aligned with LDS doctrines — the angels couldn’t have wings, for example. But they finally found one they liked and put it on the large lawn just south of the North Visitors Center.
With time, though, weather and use took its toll on the set. So they took the old nativity and coated it — clothing and all — with a special white acrylic fiberglass paint. It found a new home just off Main Street.
Then Eldon Cannon, who is now manager of grounds services on Temple Square, joined the team and suggested the set find a new home on the reflecting pool—this time with just Mary, Joseph and the Christ Child.
“In my opinion, it puts the family right where they ought to be,” Cannon said. “Visitors look at the Christ Child and see right on to the temple. That’s significant when you understand the temple, because it reminds us of Christ’s role and of eternal families.”
2. The Cedar of Lebanon—75,000 lights
The Temple Square Cedar of Lebanon is an important tree in its own right — the Cedar of Lebanon has historical and symbolic value in the scriptures. When you add 75,000 sparkling red lights, it becomes a holiday spectacle.
The tree is only lit every other year because the daily switching on and off of incandescent lights changed the tree’s temperature too drastically. Fortunately, the tree is lit in all its grandeur this year.
3. Nativities representing different cultures
The Temple Square lights are so popular that the display was recently expanded to accommodate larger and larger crowds. Lights and nativities are now also housed on the block just east of Temple Square Proper, where the Church Office Building sits.
Every year, five to seven (this year, it’s five) child-sized nativities grace this part of the display, making it an attractive place for families with small children. The nativities represent cultures from around the world, including the Pacific Islands, Japan, Latin America, Poland and the Pacific Northwest Inuits.
In keeping with the international theme, which began with the 2002 Olympics, this part of the display also features luminaries along walkways that represent different cultures and languages.
4. Stand-in trees support local schools
Even if you’ve been to Temple Square every year for decades, you might not have noticed several “stand-in” trees that the grounds crew brings in every year.
“We are able to add to the display by adding stand-in trees,” Cannon said. “We bring about 100 of them off the mountain each year, light them and take them out to Temple Square. People think they’re just planted trees, but we’ve brought them in. They help bring color where we want it.”
Temple Square officials work with the state forester to harvest these trees from state school trust lands. They pay for every tree they take — usually fir or aspen — and because they come from school trust lands, those funds help Utah schools and school districts.
5. Crew and timeline
Such a large-scale light display takes several weeks to set up. Crews begin work on Christmas lights the first week in August by preparing power sources and cables. Lights start to go up in September. The display begins the day after Thanksgiving and lasts until January. Then crews work until February or March, depending on weather, to take down and store the lights.
“It’s quite a production,” Cannon said. “It takes almost six months to do what we do with Christmas.”
The Church employs a handful of full-time employees to work on the grounds crew, but a majority of the labor is done by the hundreds of volunteers who help in the effort.