Christmas under construction: 58 years of Temple Square’s Christmas lights, what to expect

Families come to see the lights. Before construction, the Church put up thousands of Christmas lights, according to Church Historian Specialist Claire Haynie. (Photo courtesy of Daily Universe).

On Dec. 13, 2008, Katie Johnson’s then-boyfriend dropped to one knee and proposed against the backdrop of Temple Square’s million bulb Christmas Light presentation.

“I love lights at Christmas,” Johnson said. “I thought it would be a good place to (get engaged). I would go to the lights every year as a student.”

Although her family has only been to see the Christmas lights once since construction started, Johnson’s family has taken regular Temple Square holiday trips in the past to show her kids where they got engaged.

“We joke that the most romantic place in Temple Square is right outside the Church office building,” Johnson said.

Fifteen years later, Johnson reflected on her engagement and attending Temple Square at Christmastime. According to Johnson, the Temple Square Christmas lights are a vital part of Christmas.

Currently, lights are on from 3:30-10 p.m. and 6-8 a.m. They will be available for visitors to view from Thanksgiving to the New Year.

There is a long history of Christmas lights at Temple Square.

Before renovation, Temple Square gardens covered 35 acres and included a variety of plant life.

“The gardens have included up to 250 flower beds, 165,000 bedding plants and more than 750 varieties of plants from more than 100 countries around the globe,” a statement reads.

Although there is a diversity of plants, there is a consistency in the presence of Christmas lights from Thanksgiving to the New Year.

A nativity statue seemingly floats on top of the reflecting pond near the Salt Lake Temple. Temple square saw 3 million visitors a year pre-construction. (Photo courtesy of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints)

On Dec. 3, 2019, Church Historian Specialist Claire Haynie released an article utilizing library collections to trace the history of Temple Square Christmas lights.

Starting on Dec. 9, 1965, President David O. McKay set the square alight with lights carefully designed and placed by Irene Staples. According to Haynie, Staples utilized her various skills to create a unique Christmas experience.

Over the years, the Christmas light show has expanded to include pieces like a life-size Nativity.

Professor of strategy at the University of Utah Bill Hesterly and his wife, Denise Hesterly, took their kids to visit Temple Square when they were young.

“The kids loved the lights and the nativity,” Denise Hesterly said.

Bill and Denise Hesterly explained their children now bring their kids for a visit to Temple Square during Christmas.

“It’s always special to go to Temple Square,” Bill Hesterly said.

Special events like the Winter 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City have brought more visitors to the square (which already sees around 3 million visitors per year according to pre-construction data).

The north side of temple square grounds will be opening in January 2024 according to a press release from Church Newsroom. This will open more of the original grounds for visitors as construction continues on the temple. (Map courtesy of Church Newsroom)

Since 2019, construction on Temple Square has impacted the placement of Christmas lights.

Johnson explained that there are fewer lights to see during the construction period.

“It’s been so long since (Christmas lights) were the same (as pre-renovation),” Johnson said.

Construction on the grounds has continued, as more areas of the pre-construction temple square will be available to visitors as early as January 2024. According to a September press release, final landscaping on the northwest corner is in progress prior to an expected opening in January of 2024.

Progress on the North Side addition to the Salt Lake Temple, specifically internal structural work, is also underway.

“Inside the north addition, the walls are being framed, and mechanical, electrical, fire suppression and plumbing systems are being installed,” a statement reads. “Finish work is expected to begin in 2024.”

For a detailed description of construction on the Salt Lake temple, visit the Church’s website.

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