The annual tradition of Christmas lights at Temple Square has been downsized in recent years, as construction and renovation efforts continue, but it is still a popular activity for tourists and visitors alike.
The Christmas lights have long been focused around the Salt Lake Temple, which is currently undergoing significant renovations. This major project and others around Temple Square have left about 30% of the previously available area open for lights, according to Jay Warnick, grounds manager at Temple Square, a property of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Although the area is different, the experience is very much the same. Warnick said Christmas lights have been adapted so that many of the same familiar features can be seen in the areas that are currently accessible.
While Warnick heads up much of the outdoor work at the property, he said he is simply a support for about 35 gardeners who begin installing the twinkling Christmas lights at the start of August.
For them, Christmas begins in the heat and they sometimes play Christmas music while they work on lights in the summer. The gardeners have several other responsibilities, as well, so they try to get an early start on the lights each year.
The purpose of the lights, Warnick said, is to help put the focus on Jesus Christ during the Christmas season.
"That's why they're there. It's not about me … and we're not trying to outdo any other light show or compete with any other display. That is the sole purpose, that's why we do this ... to bring the spirit of Christ and peace," Warnick said.
What to expect
Some changes were made in order to spread out the crowds over the last few years, due to the highly transmissible COVID-19, as well as the ongoing construction projects. Warnick said crowds in recent years have been smaller, but they get bigger each year since the construction began.
In 2020 the property put up a wall to try to discourage gathering at the light displays, but there were still people coming to look at the lights, peering into Temple Square over fences.
"I think it actually became even more important during COVID, because it just brought that sense of normalcy and of tradition," Warnick said.
The lights are turned on earlier each night to give more opportunity for people to come while spreading out the crowds. They also have not held a big event when they flip the lights on, which used to be one of the busiest days at Temple Square. Warnick said they wanted to be aware of large crowds for safety and comfort reasons during the construction.
"Even though the volume of people is much, much less. I actually think the appreciation and just the the overall feeling seems to be much more profound, in my observation in the last few years," he said.
He said coming to see the lights is a great way to find feelings of peace and comfort.
Since only a small area around the Salt Lake Tabernacle and Assembly Hall is available for lights, many of the elements that were previously in areas that are blocked off have moved around, and into the Conference Center across the street.
Choirs previously performed at a visitors' center on Temple Square, but now they are performing at the Conference Center.
Luminarias that used to be placed east of the temple each year are now lining flower beds on the Conference Center grounds. Some international nativities, as well, have moved from the east side of the temple to the grounds around the tabernacle.
Warnick said gardeners have tried to preserve as many of the elements people are familiar with as possible.
One new element this year was outside of grounds crew control, Warnick said, as construction workers decked out their own cranes with Christmas lights that can be seen from throughout the valley — adding a highlight of the construction work to the experience.
Some memorable elements of the Temple Square Christmas lights remain in storage, for now, including a large nativity that sat on the ground north of the tabernacle and was lit up as a narration played on hidden speakers. That experience has been replaced with a video projected onto the ceiling of the tabernacle called "Peace on Earth," which premiered last year. Warnick said the video is only available at Temple Square.
The white floating nativity that previously sat surrounded by floating candles, in a fountain on the east side of the Salt Lake City Temple, is also in storage.
Caring for the trees
The most common question Warnick gets asked is how many lights there are, but, he said, it's a hard question to answer. Each year, the trees change and the lights are put up differently, to work with changes in the trees.
He said asking about the number of lights it is like asking an artist how much paint they used. The gardeners aren't following a specific pattern and the number of light strands used can change every year as they approach each tree individually, adding more lights where they are needed.
One specific tree, a 40-foot cedar of Lebanon that still sits on Temple Square, has red lights on it. A member of the church brought it, among two saplings, from Jerusalem in 1949 — carrying them in her lap on the plane. She gave one of the trees to the church.
Warnick said the lights are another way to accentuate the structure of that tree and it makes him appreciate it more.
Urban environments are harder for trees, and putting Christmas lights on adds to the risk, he said, so gardeners are also caring for the trees as they add the lights.
"Some species are more susceptible to damage than others, but that's why the artists that put this up, they're not just designing, but they're also caring for the tree and they know what's best for the tree and are very, very surgical," Warnick said.
He said they could get the lights up faster, but they are methodical as they prioritize the health of the trees.
Warnick said when he looks at the trees, he has a sense of "profound gratitude" for all of the effort that went into the process, something he wishes he could share with others coming to see the lights.
Some of the staff is on site each evening, checking on the lights to make sure they are all working properly, Warnick said. The crew is also working on the grounds doing snow and ice removal.
They typically have all of the lights taken off the trees and packed away by the end of January. They take the lights off of the trees, bring them inside to test them and wrap them up for the next six months.
At Temple Square, the grounds crews have a goal to create "an oasis" throughout the year, a place where people can find a feeling of peace and relief, Warnick said. Even when the grounds are crowded with people, during general conference or for the Christmas lights, he said, the connection with other people and families can be part of that oasis.
He said they don't wonder if their monthslong effort to light the trees at Temple Square is worth it.
"When you see that little 5-year-old up on their parents' shoulders, just looking up into this massive tree, that's all you need," Warnick said.
Christmas lights are not unique to the Salt Lake Temple, as the church puts up displays and nativity scenes at other temples around the world, as well.
Warnick said the beautiful lights that attract people from all walks of life help to create a feeling and an experience at Temple Square.
Despite all that is going on, seeing the lights can still be a memorable experience, and there are still many things to see and do despite the limited space.
"It's still a great way to start your season of ... the volume might not be there but there's still that experience," he said.
The lights are among many other Christmas activities throughout the five city blocks of Temple Square, including a Christmas Around the World display at the Family History Library, a musical production called "Savior of the World: His Birth and Resurrection," and various musical concerts.
The Christmas lights are on between 4:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. and from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. daily through Jan. 1.