An early Thanksgiving this year means the colorful lights will blaze more nights in the gardens of the Mesa Arizona Temple and Visitors Center of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
At 7 p.m. today, one of the Southwest’s most spectacular Christmas lighting displays will shine when Glade and Carol Soelberg of Mesa flip the switch for at least 600,000 lights to burn for the first of 39 nights. Church leaders officially say they’ve stopped counting lights lest they get into a we’ve-got-more-lights-than-you competition with other festive displays in the Valley.
More than one million people annually visit the temple grounds as a holiday tradition, walking arm in arm, pushing baby strollers and snapping photos, according to the visitors center.
For the 28th season, the palm trees, shrubbery, walls and walkways are adorned with strings of lights in what is billed as the “largest known volunteer-driven Christmas lights display.”
Starting Saturday, the displays will be lighted from 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. nightly through Jan. 1. The display’s theme is, “Celebrate the Life of Christ in Lights and Music.”
“We do it for the community,” said Dee Hobbs, who has led the project for four years. “It is a place where people can come with their families and spend the evening. Children like it, and it’s a real family thing.”
The Soelbergs, a Mormon couple, were chosen to kick off the lighting because they have been National Parents of the Year. They have 13 children and 30 grandchildren. The nine oldest children have earned at least bachelor’s degrees while the other four have a degree in their sights. All play the piano.
The temple grounds were first lit in 1980 with just 5,000 lights. As the number of lights soared, the event earned a mention on ABC’s “Good Morning America” as one of the nation’s three “must see” holiday lighting displays.
“We work really hard to get this set up so that people can come down and enjoy themselves,” said Hobbs, noting that the grounds are subdivided in 40 sectors, then church stakes (comprising as many as 10 wards, or congregations) are assigned to decorate the plants or structures in their areas. A team of up to 20 volunteers must go to a church warehouse and find the bin with its sector’s lights, examine photos taken of that area the year before and string those lights, Hobbs said.
Most stakes get the same assigned area each year, and Mormon single wards are among the most enthusiastic about their tasks, Hobbs said. Cherry pickers were used, starting in mid-October, to wire 60-foot palm trees; the rest of the lights went up mostly in early November.
The church has adopted a four-year plan to convert all lights to light-emitting diode (LED) low-energy lights that are touted to have a life of 300,000 hours. This is the first year that all new lights are LED, saving an enormous amount of energy, Hobbs said.
Among the most popular features on the grounds are an elaborate nativity and Bethlehem village arrangements, with a focus on the manger scene.
The very last item put into the manger scene is the Baby Jesus, which “keeps disappearing,” Hobbs said. But it’s not the only figure that has been stolen. “Last year, a little kid came walking into the visitors center carrying a lamb,” Hobbs said. “His mother said, ‘He’s bringing this lamb back.’ As soon as we took the lamb, the two of them were gone! They didn’t want to discuss it.”
Just west of the temple’s reflection pool is a separate Mary and Joseph display with life-size characters. It was added last year, the two-year labor of Rene Johnson of Safford. “She put their hair in one hair at a time,” Hobbs said.
At 7 p.m. each night, a different community, school, family or church group will give a 30-minute holiday music concert. They include the Red Mountain Brass, Maricopa Stake Choir and the Mesa City Band. The schedule of groups can be found at www.christmastemplelights.com.
Inside the visitors’ center is a room filled with elaborate nativity sets from all over the world, largely from the private collection of Sally Johnson and Diane Horne, both of Mesa. They demonstrate that “Christ is worshipped by people throughout the world in their own way,” Johnson said.
Thousands of visitors come via tour buses. A newly paved parking lot on the east side of the grounds has been set aside along with handicapped parking. Ample parking is available on the grounds and in the nearby neighborhood as well, Hobbs noted.
As many as 4,000 people, including musical performers, have a hand in the festive production, which is free.
“It is always beautiful,” said Barbara Obray, a church member from Mesa, who is a regular each year. “I think it is just the spirit that you feel here. Every year it is a little different.”
“I am just so thankful that they do it,” Obray said. “It is just a beautiful reminder of our Savior.”
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Mesa Arizona Temple Garden Christmas Lights
WHEN: Lighting display 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. through Jan. 1; kickoff ceremonies 7 p.m. today
WHERE: Mesa Arizona Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 525 E. Main St.
MORE INFORMATION: (480) 964-7164 or www.christmastemplelights.com