Christmastime at Temple Square really is the most magical time of year! As Temple Square is dressed in its Christmas best, covered with millions of sparkling lights, beautiful nativities and hopefully fluffy snow, a December visit is the perfect way to capture the Christmas spirit.
And while the lights are a real crowd pleaser, do you know how long ago this holiday tradition started? Or where the cedar of Lebanon came from? If you don’t, it’s time to learn. We’ve got everything you need to know about the history of the lights on Temple Square.
How the Lights Came About
The Christmas lights tradition started more than 50 years ago—back in 1965. But, the lights on Temple Square nearly didn’t happen. When Deseret News publisher E. Earl Hawkes first proposed the idea to LDS Church President David O. McKay, Temple Square’s head gardener was afraid the heat from the lights would be too harmful to the trees. After some debate, and some who say by the persuasion of his wife, President McKay decided to go ahead with it.
President McKay approved and oversaw the Temple Square Christmas lights and tree decorating project as it was referred to back then. He also chose arborist J. Leland Behunin to head the project, who spent six weeks by himself hanging 40,000 lights—without even having a ladder to use!
The First Lighting Ceremony
That inaugural lighting ceremony took place on December 9th, at 7:45 p.m. Nearly 15,000 people came to it, where President McKay did the honors of pushing the button to turn the lights on and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sang classic holiday songs.
The purpose of the Temple Square lights wasn’t, and still isn’t today, to remind people of Christmas; but to remind them of the real meaning of the season—Jesus Christ. When this first started, those involved hoped the lights and the color theme of the lights would make Temple Square a place anyone could come and reflect on the true meaning of Christmas, about the Savior being the light of the world and to remind visitors about the LDS Church’s devotion to Christ and His life.
The Cedar of Lebanon
A standout on Temple Square in December is the cedar of Lebanon—a 70-foot-tall tree that’s been growing for 75 years. During Christmastime, it’s covered in 75,000 red LED lights, but is only lit every other year to help the tree survive longer. This tree wasn’t always on the Temple Square grounds, though. A woman brought the seed back from the Holy Land and gave it to the Temple Square grounds gardener to plant nearly 75 years ago.
For even more fun trivia, check out our blog post, 8 Things You Didn’t Know About the Temple Square Christmas Lights.