Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
In the fall of 1965, the idea of Christmas lights on the trees at Temple Square was new and worrisome.
In a meeting with LDS Church President David O. McKay, Irvin T. Nelson, the head gardener at Temple Square, expressed concern that heat from lights might cause trees to come out of dormancy early with premature buds. Another man, arborist J. Leland Behunin, believed it could be done without harming the trees.
After some discussion, President McKay finally decided to allow the Christmas lights and said Behunin would oversee the project.
"My dad had never lit a tree in his life, but said yes, he could do that," said Benjamin Behunin, his son.
More than six weeks later, nearly 15,000 people gathered on Thursday, Dec. 9, at 7:45 p.m., to see 40,000 Christmas lights turned on for the first "Lighting of Temple Square." The Deseret News reported how "a mighty aah" of appreciation went up from the crowd as the lights went on, followed by a burst of applause. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir sang Christmas hymns and the crowd walked around in awe of so many tiny twinkling bulbs.
The trees survived the heat blast. Interestingly, lights can cause stress to a tree. Going from warm to cold repeatedly and abruptly can cause the tree's cell structures to tear, but the lights can also help prevent tree disease and bugs over winter. Behunin and his son continued to wrap the trees with strands of lights until 1982, when the church took over the massive task.
Almost a half-century after lights first lit up Temple Square, the lights, Nativity scenes and other festive events have continued to attract millions of visitors. Each August, hundreds of church employees start placing holiday decorations and blanketing Temple Square in thousands of strands of LED lights, cables and extension cords in preparation for the annual lighting ceremony the day after Thanksgiving. Countless family traditions, memories and marriage proposals might have been altered had it not been for Behunin's initial efforts.
"We have seen the process evolve for the better. They have it down to a science. The lights bring a huge amount of publicity to the church because members and non-members enjoy walking these sacred grounds," Behunin said. "It's very satisfying to say our family started the tradition."
President McKay presided over The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' European mission from 1923 to 1925. Leland Behunin was one of his missionaries. After his mission, Behunin studied for four years at the Davey Institute of Tree Surgery in Kent, Ohio, specializing in arbor care. He spent an additional four years there working to pay off his education. In 1943, he established Behunin Horticulture and began nurturing trees and landscapes along the Wasatch Front, including Temple Square.
More than a decade later, Leland had a family and home in Emery County, Utah. When his wife died after giving birth to Ben, Leland was left to care for five kids under the age of 8. He went to Salt Lake City seeking advice from his old mission president. President McKay advised Behunin to sell everything and move to Salt Lake City.
"It might be hard to understand, but follow this advice and I promise you in the name of the Lord that your family will be blessed," President McKay told Behunin.
He did as instructed and following the move, Behunin became acquainted with Nelson at Temple Square, which led to his pruning and wrapping Christmas lights around trees.
Hanging Christmas lights at Temple Square those first few years was challenging. The first year, Leland did it himself. When his son Ben returned from his mission, he helped, but there were numerous trees and they had no ladders and very few tools. And there were the lights.
"You could only put 10 strands on one cord," Ben said. "Too many and you would cause a blowout and lose a section of lights on the tree."
During the late 1960s, Ben was attending Brigham Young University and knew the university had a cherry-picking machine. Arrangements were made and they were able to use the machine to hang lights on the big trees.
That helped, Ben said, but the process evolved for years. Each year, they started in early October and worked six days a week, eight to 10 hours a day, to be ready before Thanksgiving. Sometimes lighting one big tree took two or three days.
"The first few years it was sloppily done. No one had lit trees this size," he said.
Ben graduated from BYU and took over his father's tree business by the end of the 1960s and continued to do the Temple Square lights for another decade, with help from his son, also named Ben.
"When I was little and people talked about the lights on Temple Square and how wonderful they were, I would go to school and brag, 'My dad did those, my dad did those,'" Ben Jr. said. "Our family loves Christmas. The lights have become part of us."
Ben and his son continue to operate the family business today, and they care for trees from Logan to St. George, including LDS Church temple grounds and other church properties. Some have disputed Behunin's claim of being the first family to put up Christmas lights at Temple Square, so Ben obtained signed statements from longtime Deseret News editor and photographer J. Malan Heslop and former Temple Square head gardener Peter Lassig as proof of their work.
Ben Sr. and his wife are currently spending two days a week as service missionaries at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building. Ben Sr. still gets emotional each November when the lights are flipped on.
"It's a very spiritual experience for me," he said. "It's special to know we have done something for Temple Square and the Lord that has been so wonderful for so many people."
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