12/11/2009

25 Ways to Celebrate Christmas in Washington, D.C.

I'm not sure any city in the nation "does" the Christmas holiday like D.C.  The area combines national celebrations, historical celebrations, and local celebrations to create a calendar stuffed with enough events to fluster even Martha Stewart!
  1. National Christmas Tree and Pageant of Peace.  The National Christmas tree is an 80+ft monster sparkling with lights, flanked by 50 smaller trees representing each of the states.  Don't expect spectacular decoratinos - since the trees are outdoors, most of the ornaments are encased in clear glass balls - but the lights are pretty and there are other displays sure to delight the kids, including a pen of reindeer and a model train display.  If you're very lucky, you may be able to land tickets for the night of the actual lighting, a big shindig that features celebrities, political notables and performance and is nationally televised.
  2. See the White House decorated for the holidays.  Remains to be seen whether, given security concerns, they decide to open the White House to visitors this year, but if you have an opportunity to take the tour, don't turn it down!  The interior of 1600 Penn Avenue always looks as though it were professionally decorated by the Ghost of Christmas Past, featuring garlands of evergreen, extravagent bouquets, lights, wreaths, and ribbon ... and as if that wasn't enough, there are almost always performers in the main areas regaling visitors with live performances of holiday classics.  Really pretty spectacular.  
  3. Ice skating at the sculpture garden.  Ice skating beneath the stars in the heart of historic D.C. - what could be more Christmasy? The rink draws semi-professional skaters showing off their moves as well as amateurs showing off their lack of expertise, and sales of hot chocolate are always brisk. 
  4. A Christmas Carol at Ford's Theater.  Must be at least the 30th year for this holiday tradition. They tweek the production every year, but it's always top-notch.
  5. The Nutcracker at the Kennedy Center.  Traditionally the Kirov Ballet has done - or is that performed? - the honors, but regardless of the company, the production is always top-notch.  Tickets sell fast, though ... you'll want to call the first day they go on sale to land yours.  If you don't land these coveted tickets, however, never fear: every dance company in the DC area does some version of this!  Just check the listings for community stages and theaters.
  6. Handel's Messiah sing-along at Wolf Trap Park for the Performing Arts.  They also perform the Messiah at the National Cathedral, but I prefer the more plebian sing-along version at Wolftrap.  Every year this event reminds me how much talent we have in DC - the crowd may be plebian, but they sound amazing.  Warning: the performance is outdoors, so dress in lots of layers!
  7. Celebration of Lights (or is that Celebrations of Light?).  You'll find events of this sort scattered all over the DC/MD/VA area, usually at large regional parks because it takes a lot of room to display the 100s of huge lighted shapes that families will pay $$ to gawk at from the comfort of their heated cars.  The ones I'm familiar with include the displays at Bull Run Battlefield Park (Centreville, VA), Watkins Regional Park (Prince Georges Co.), Seneca Creek State Park (Gaithersburg, MD), Brookside Garden (Wheaton, MD), Sandy Point State Park (Annapolis, MD), and at Merriweather Post Pavillion (Columbia, MD)
  8. Zoolights at the National Zoo.  The folks at the National Zoo do a lovely job of turning the park into a Christmas destination.  Kids will love the 100s of animated displays, ice sculptures, choruses, and other seasonal performers.  
  9. Christmas at the U.S. Botanical Gardens.  Lots of buildings in DC feature special holiday displays, but I'm partial to the US Botanical Gardens spread, featuring models of DC landmarks flanked by gorgeous poinsettia displays, decorated trees, and a cool model train made of natural materials.  Makes a nice change of pace from the usual holiday decorations.
  10. Alexandria Holiday Boat Parade/ Annapolis Parade of Lights.  Both of these events feature festively (and creatively) lighted boats sailing down the Potomac River.  You can watch them from shoreline restaurants or any number of outdoor docks.
  11. Christmas Eve service at the National Cathedral.  Masses simply don't get any more grand than this!
  12. Festival of Lights at Mormon Temple.  Over 450,000 lights and (not surprisingly) an outdoor nativity.
  13. Traditional Christmases.  Almost all the local historical houses - to include Mount Vernon, Sully Plantation, and Montpelier - feature candlelight tours of the estates decorated in period fashion for the holidays. 
  14. Scottish Christmas Walk.  This rather odd but endearing event features almost 100 Scottish clans marching to seasonal bagpipe music.  What's the connection between Scotland and Christmas?  I'm not sure - but I can tell you that tends of thousands of tourists from all over the world gather in Alexandria VA every year for this celebration.  (The Alexandria Holiday Boat Parade is that night - see above for more details.)
  15. Holiday parades.  A bunch of local communities sponsor holiday parades: Manassas, Middleburg, Leesburg, Reston, etc.
  16. Winery events.  Virginia's wineries host a month of wonderfully diverse holiday events, from traditional Christmas dinners to concerts, performances, and mead tastings.
  17. Craft Festivals.  Stock up on gifts and decorations at such traditional holiday craft shows as the Sugarloaf Craft Festival or the Washington Craft Show.
  18. Holiday shows.  Venues like the GMU Patriot Center specialize in booking holidays shows such as Circ de Sole, the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, and the Disney on Ice Holiday Extravaganza.
  19. Holiday concerts.  Just about every performing group in the area hosts a concert show!  So get your music on with the National Symphony Orchestra, the Richmond Symphony Orchestra, the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra, the Washington Chorale, Choral Arts Society of Reston, the military service bands, or take in the period festivities at the Folger Renaissance concert.
  20. Live Nativities.  Many local churches host "live nativities" - traditional nativity displays that feature live camels, cows, donkeys, etc. 
  21. Santarchy.  Like many other major cities, DC plays host to an annual "Santarchy" event, in which hundreds of local rowdies dress like Santa and take over a section of the city for an afternoon (traditionally the section that features the most bars).  It's definitely not politically correct: this one is not for the kiddies!
  22. ICE at the Gaylord Hotel.  Every year this mega-hotel located at National Harbor hires 40+ ice-carvers to sculpt a huge village of ice in one of the main areas of the hotel.  The houses are big enough to walk through!  Last year's theme was "Whoville".  Very cool.  (Sorry - pun was irresistable.  Really.)
  23. Christmas Revels.  Approximately 10 cities in the U.S. have "Revels" groups, whose mission is to preserve holiday traditions from bygone ages.  Every year the Christmas Revel celebrations the traditions of a different country/era, but you can count on the revelry including music, singing, dancing, storytelling and skits.  By the way, it's an interactive activity, so wear comfortable shoes and be prepared to sing along.
  24. Christmastown at Busch Gardens.  This isn't strictly a D.C. activity, but Busch Gardens amusement park in Williamsburg draws a DC/MD/NOVA crowd so I'm grudgingly including it.  Every year, just after Thanksgiving, the park reopens as "Christmas Town," complete with decorations, entertainment, attractions, rides, shopping and more. 
  25. Model train exhibits. Don't know how or why models trains have become such a Christmas tradition, but they are one of my favorite things any time of the year!  And isn't it lucky that the D.C. area hosts half a dozen really terrific holiday train displays.  Check out the huge setup at Union Station, the outdoor setup at the National Christmas tree/Pageant of Peace, the all-natural train set at the U.S. Botanical Gardens, or one of the smaller but still spectacular train setups at Colvin Run Mill or the Fairfax Station Railroad Museum.
So - what are your favorite D.C. holiday traditions?  What have I missed?

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