Two hundred candles burning at Christmastime sounded beautiful to Mike Leavitt.
It was a custom a colleague told Leavitt about years ago, which the colleague did every year during the holidays at his Texas mortuary.
But Leavitt says he soon realized that, if 200 lighted candles sounded pretty, a few thousand would be even better.
"We want to do something spectacular," he thought back then, when he first decided to cover the grounds of his Ogden cemetery in December with 3,500 to 4,000 luminarias.
That was the start of the annual drive-through luminaria display at Leavitt's Aultorest Memorial Park, a tradition that marks its 20th anniversary Thursday and now features 6,000 candles.
"I was trying to think of something special to do at the holiday. ... The holiday is really rough on people. They've lost a loved one, they're really clinging to anything -- they're down," says the president of the Ogden mortuary.
Seeing all of the lights flickering in the darkness helps folks remember their loved ones and recall old memories, Leavitt says.
"Everybody has a different thought and everybody has a different feeling," he says. "It brings out a lot of good things."
The display is one of at least two such holiday events in the Top of Utah. Each year, about 650 luminarias are placed on grave sites in the West Point City Cemetery.
The West Point event began 16 years ago when Barbara Langston's husband, Doyle, passed away nine days before Christmas Day -- which was also his birthday.
Langston says she and her husband always decorated the outside of their West Point home with luminarias at Christmas, so that holiday, she and her family put some luminarias on his grave. The next year, her family and friends expanded their efforts throughout the cemetery.
"I love candles, always have loved candles. ... It just seems like it's a peaceful thing," says Langston, who now lives in Farmington.
The city now provides the candles, along with sacks and dirt to fill them, Langston says. Over the years, the volunteers have become very proficient at the task, she says.
"We can have the bags (ready) and the candles lit within an hour and a half," she says.
At Leavitt's, preparations for the luminaria display begin in October, when folks start filling thousands of sacks with sand and candles.
The luminarias will be placed out on Thursday, about one in every 10-by-20-foot area. The aim is to place them in precise rows akin to the perfect rows of headstones found in a military cemetery, Leavitt says.
Lighting begins about 2 p.m. and the candles -- which are paraffin, because they burn brightest -- will stay lit for about 15 hours.
"We've had quite a few still burning at 7 or 8 in the morning," Leavitt says.
Do folks find a light display in a cemetery at Christmas to be a sad thing? No, says Leavitt, who says he often gets hugs and thank-yous from visitors.
"There's something about a fire, there's something about a candle where you can watch it and think of good things," he says.
The event is open to all, he says, not just those with family or friends buried at the 60-acre cemetery.
"This is for anybody to come," he says, "and share their memories of the loved ones they have lost."
WHERE TO GO
Luminarias will fill two dark winter nights with light.
* Today: About 650 candles are lit at dusk on the grave sites in the West Point City Cemetery, 40 N. 4000 West. Volunteers are invited to come at 4 p.m. to help set out the candles, which burn all night long. For more information, call 801-776-0970.
* Thursday: Bell ringers and carolers will perform from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. during the annual luminaria display at Leavitt's Aultorest Memorial Park, 836 36th St., Ogden. The 6,000 candles are lit by dusk and stay lit throughout the night; visitors may drive through the display at any time or take a hay-wagon ride from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Volunteers may help place the candles beginning at 8:30 a.m.; to volunteer or get more information, call 801-394-5556.
Admission to both events is free.