A gift to brighten spirits Task: Months of work will have trees and shrubs glowing before Christmas at the Washington Mormon Temple.

November 27, 1998|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

Silvio Quiroga and Estanislao Diaz are building "a lighted doorway to the sky" that will draw a quarter-million people to a hillside above the Capital Beltway.

Beginning Dec. 4, the trees and shrubs at the Washington Mormon Temple will twinkle with 400,000 tiny lights, a counterpoint to the powerful floodlights that illuminate the six spires of the Mormon landmark.

"This is a gift from us to our friends and our neighbors," said Elder Mac Christensen. "This is a time for families to be together and enjoy the spirit."

The Festival of Lights, entering its 21st season, lasts five weeks, a fraction of the time it takes workers such as Quiroga and Diaz to prepare the display.

Quiroga began the tedious task of stringing the lights almost four months ago and was joined several weeks later by Diaz. Volunteers and paid laborers were added in the fall. Their work won't stop until just before the lighting ceremony.

Remember when Dad teetered on the top of a stepladder as he draped the lights on evergreen branches?

This is nothing like that.

Each trunk, each branch is carefully wrapped like a barber pole. Three cherry pickers handle aerial work.

The process is time-consuming. A shrub can take a full day, a tree, two or more. Newcomers who boast that they'll knock off a tree a day get polite smiles and nods from the veterans who add the claim to the catalog of war stories.

The men said they toil in the trees because of the pleasure -- visual and spiritual -- it brings visitors.

"A friend told me I was building a lighted doorway to the sky. It touched me," said Diaz, placing his fingertips over his heart.

Keeping watch

After the lights are up, Diaz and Quiroga patrol the grounds to replace burned-out or loose bulbs.

"The wind blows and one light comes loose and the whole whole string goes out," said Quiroga, gesturing at the nearby shrubs. "We have to keep working. When it rains or snows, we just stay with the lights."

On Jan. 4, the men reverse the process, "de-lighting," as one worker called it. Depending on the weather, the job can take up to three months.

The holiday celebration goes on inside the Washington Temple visitors center, too.

Mormon groups from the Baltimore-Washington region decorate the 15 10-foot evergreens there, each with a different scripture theme.

'Cultures of the world'

In one conference room, creches from two states and nine countries are displayed. Some were donated by embassies, others were brought back by missionaries and friends of the church.

"Every year we represent the best we can the cultures of the world," said Christensen. "On any given night, we'll have 15 to 20 languages being spoken here. We find people are delighted to find their heritage highlighted."

Each of the 31 nights features local entertainment at 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. Musicians from Howard County will perform Dec. 21; Anne Arundel will be represented Dec. 8 and 15; Carroll County youngsters will sing Dec. 11 and 18.

The lights are on from 5: 30 to 10 each night. Crowds are smallest Monday through Thursday.

Steve Woodall, an assistant engineer at the temple, says the electric bill for the five weeks approaches $40,000. Another engineer, Dan Stahl, says it's worth it.

"We want to share with people the spirit of Christmas and what it's all about. When you think of it that way, it's a pittance," Stahl said.

Directions from Baltimore: Interstate 95 South to Capital Beltway West (I-495) to Exit 33. Take Connecticut Avenue north to the first right, Beach Drive. Make a left on Stoney Run Drive. The visitors center is on the left. Volunteers will direct visitors to parking. Information: 301-587- 0144.

Pub Date: 11/27/98

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