There’s no better place to celebrate Christmas than in the United States capital! Extravagant Christmas tree lighting ceremonies, holiday light displays, family-friendly activities, and live performances turn Washington D.C. into a festive wonderland every winter. With Christmas just around the corner, now is the time to start marking your calendar to attend the best Christmas events in D.C.
These holiday events occur each year, so you can turn them into family holiday traditions. Some of these events are even free, making it easy for families on a tight budget to enjoy the holiday fun.
Now, get ready for weeks of D.C. Christmas fun to get you into the holiday spirit!
Table of Contents
- 1 National Christmas Tree Lighting
- 2 Georgetown GLOW
- 3 Winterfest at Wunder Garten
- 4 Wreaths Across America
- 5 Lighting of the National Menorah
- 6 Wolf Trap National Park Holiday Sing-A-Long
- 7 NPR’s A Jazz Piano Christmas
- 8 Hot 99.5’s Jingle Ball
- 9 Meadowlark’s Winter Walk of Lights
- 10 Christmas Illuminations and Winter Glow at Mount Vernon
- 11 U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree
- 12 Norwegian Model Trains at Union Station
- 13 D.C. Downtown Holiday Market
- 14 —— Cancelled in 2020 ——
- 15 ZooLights and BrewLights
- 16 ICE! at the Gaylord National
- 17 ENCHANT
- 18 The District’s Holiday Boat Parade
- 19 Scottish Christmas Walk Weekend
- 20 A Christmas Carol at Ford’s Theater
- 21 Handel’s Messiah at the Washington National Cathedral
- 22 The Washington Ballet’s The Nutcracker
- 23 Waterskiing Santa
- 24 Middleburg Hunt Review
- 25 Movie Nights at the National Museum of American History
- 26 Where to stay in Washington, D.C.
- 27 Pin it and Start Planing Your Christmas in DC
National Christmas Tree Lighting
- Address: The Ellipse on the National Mall, near 15th & E St. NW
- Dates: December 3, 2020 (the 2020 lighting event will occur online only at thenationaltree.org)
The National Christmas Tree Lighting is a spectacular event. At this televised ceremony, the National Christmas Tree is lit for the first time, usually by the President and his family.
The current national tree, a magnificent 30 foot blue spruce, was collected from a forest in Pennsylvania and planted on the national mall in 2019. The tree features thousands of lights and star ornaments, and is surrounded by a burning yule log, model train tracks and 56 smaller trees representing every U.S. state and territory.
The ceremony includes solo and group musical performances, including the United States Marine Band. The tree remains lit each evening throughout December for visitors to enjoy.
- Address: Throughout downtown Georgetown, NW
- Dates: early December through early January
The historic Georgetown neighborhood lights up each year with one of the city’s most celebrated light shows, and the District’s only curated collection of outdoor light installations.
Grab coffee and hot chocolate from Baked & Wired, a few macarons at Olivia Macaron or one of the seasonal flavors from Georgetown Cupcakes before taking a walking tour down the historic streets by the canal, enjoying luminous works by local and international artists.
Past artists include Joana Stillwell, Lindsay Glatz, Frank Foole and Sui Park.
Winterfest at Wunder Garten
- Address: 1101 First Street, NE
- Dates: December 4th – 20th (with special social distancing events for 2020)
Wunder Garden is a beloved outdoor beer garden that always goes above and beyond in providing service, activities and special evenings for its patrons.
Each December, it hosts a couple weeks of non-stop Christmas-themed partying and excitement, with different special events happening most evenings—some requiring ticketing or RSVPs, and some open to the public. The events are a great way to socialize and meet the neighborhood in an inclusive and very LGBTQ+ friendly environment.
It’s worth returning a few nights in a row for events like pet photos with Santa, holiday pub trivia and ugly sweater parties.
They even offer holiday workshops that will have you walking away with finished crafts and new skills, including screen-printing cards, garland making, and paint and sips.
And the festival closes out in style with a must-see-to-believe Night of 1,000 Santas!
Wreaths Across America
- Address: Arlington National Cemetery, 1 Memorial Ave., Arlington, VA
- Dates: December 19, 2020
Anyone can participate in this moving ceremony intended to remember those service members we have lost, and to recognize that their memory lives on through their families during the holiday season.
During the event, volunteers place classic holiday wreathes on the iconic white tombstones of Arlington National Cemetery, a beautiful resting place for members of the military from the Civil War to the present day. The visual effect and emotional impact of these symbols of respect and love are overwhelming.
Around the country, the same event takes place simultaneously at over 2,400 cemeteries; to take part in this ritual is truly an honored American tradition.
Lighting of the National Menorah
- Address: The Ellipse on the National Mall, near 15th & E St. NW
- Dates: December 10, 2020 (takes place the first night of Hanukkah)
The lighting of the world’s largest menorah on the Ellipse just in front of the White House grounds is a fantastic event for the Jewish community in DC and beyond.
This celebration of the miracle of Hanukkah and the victory of light over darkness centers around the ceremonial lighting of the menorah, but also features the US Navy Band and other musical performers, traditional snacks and activity kits for children, and stirring affirmations of community spirit.
Plus, tickets are free for everyone, so why not turn up for this fun celebration?
Wolf Trap National Park Holiday Sing-A-Long
- Address: 1645 Trap Road Vienna, VA
- Dates: December 5 and 19, 2020 (for 2020, virtual only)
In the only U.S. national park for the performing arts, join the United States Marine Band and local choir groups for an afternoon of Christmas carols and Hanukkah songs. This free, joyous gathering participates in the Toys for Tots gift drive, inviting sing-along participants to donate new toys to children in need.
Wolf Trap is a unique concert venue: a sheltered outdoor concert space in a national park that also provides lawn seating with an excellent view of the stage. Visitors can bring their own snacks and drinks, but there are also concession stands to keep the hot beverages and holiday treats in ready supply.
The sing-a-long follows some traditions for carolers to partake in. Remember to “BYOB”—bring your own bell to join the crowd in a “jing-a-long” to Jingle Bells; then, join the exiting processional to Silent Night with your own candle.
Arrive early—as entry is on a first come, first serve basis, and parking is limited.
NPR’s A Jazz Piano Christmas
- Address: John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St NW
- Dates: December 5, 2020
Each year, the prestigious John F. Kennedy Center hosts a jazz piano Christmas concert presented by National Public Radio.
At A Jazz Piano Christmas, music lovers can hear their favorite Christmas tunes with a jazzy twist. It’s an evening of playful musical fun with a lot of holiday cheer to go around. The featured pianists are always well-respected and highly talented. Prior years have featured Hancock Institute International Competition finalist Joshua White, Latin pianist Rebecca Mauleón, and NEA Jazz Master Kenny Barron.
The concert is roughly an hour and 15 minutes long, and tickets sell out quickly, so music lovers should jump on them as soon as they are made available. Last-minute tickets can sometimes be snatched up by calling The Kennedy Center and checking their website regularly.
Hot 99.5’s Jingle Ball
- Address: Capital One Arena, 601 F St NW (For 2020, virtual only)
- Dates: December 10, 2020
Join DC’s top pop and hip-hop station for their annual end-of-the-year concert with a star-studded lineup. Jingle Ball is a touring concert series where different cities get to see different artists, and Washington’s active music scene attracts some of the biggest stars that even larger cities might miss out on.
The station manages to gather together the biggest names in music that have been at the top of the charts all year, for a Christmas mega-show. Given how many popular performers and special surprises show up, its incredible that tickets are so cheap.
A typical Jingle Ball concert is over four hours long, so be prepared for a late night.
Whether you live in Washington D.C. or you’ll just be visiting, you’ll get to experience plenty of high-energy nightlife and holiday magic at Jingle Ball.
Meadowlark’s Winter Walk of Lights
- Address: Meadowlark Botanical Gardens, 9750 Meadowlark Gardens Ct, Vienna, VA
- Dates: November 11, 2020 – January 3, 2021
Set your own pace as you take an evening stroll with family and friends through this outdoor light spectacular housed in a beautiful botanical garden.
Christmas lights twinkle over every tree and structure, animating to form remarkable musical scenes and reflecting beautifully onto the dark water. It’s a perfect spot for a date night or family evening out, with tons of ideal photo ops.
Hot drinks and tasty treats as well as souvenir ornaments are available for sale, but remember that the entire attraction is outdoors, so bundle up!
Need extra holiday fun? Click to find more ways to celebrate Christmas in DC
Christmas Illuminations and Winter Glow at Mount Vernon
- Address: 3200 Mt Vernon Memorial Hwy, Mount Vernon, VA
- Dates: Winter Glow December 12-13, Christmas Illuminations December 18-19, 2020
Travel down to Mount Vernon the weekends before Christmas for two fantastic events that take place against the backdrop of one of the most beautiful and important historical sites in the region, the 18th century home of George Washington. These family-friendly, two-night events add an educational twist to the holidays (that the kids might not even notice!).
For Christmas Illuminations, the reenactors from the First Virginia Regiment will be there to explain an 18th century holiday season and answer all your questions, along with artisans making chocolate treats the old-fashioned way. Make sure you stay until the evening, when fireworks kick off accompanied by holiday music.
Winter Glow will see the mansion and grounds bathed in a colorful light show, while carolers entertain with traditional Christmas carols and reenactors recreate an 18th-century winter encampment, with all its hardships and fascinating stories.
Visitors can walk around George Washington’s historic estate and tour the mansion before the shows begin.
U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree
- Address: U.S. Capitol Building, West Lawn: East Capitol St NE & First St SE
- Dates: Throughout December—lighting on December 2, 2020
We sure love our Christmas trees in Washington, D.C. While Christmas tree scavenger hunts are fun, sometimes you just want to see the best, and the U.S. Capitol Christmas tree is definitely one of the best.
Every year since 1964, a tree is chosen from a different national forest to be the official “People’s Tree” on display at the U.S. Capitol’s West Lawn.
This tree travels far and wide from its home state, stopping in at least 20 towns along the way. People love to track the tree’s journey and pop over when it gets close to their town. Thousands of volunteers help raise money and make sure the tree stays watered and protected as it travels to the nation’s capital.
It is free to view this massive tree, which can be almost twice as tall as the National Christmas Tree, sometimes standing as tall as 75 feet. The more-than-10,000 ornaments that decorate this tree are created by children of the tree’s home state.
It is truly a tree that touches the entire nation, not just the residents of Washington, D.C.
Love lights? We have a list of the best Christmas Lights in DC just for you!
Norwegian Model Trains at Union Station
- Address: Washington Union Station, 50 Massachusetts Ave NE
- Dates: December – January
Whether you pass through this central train station while traveling, or head there specifically for the shopping and dining, find a little extra holiday joy with the holiday model trains and the giant Christmas tree, both gifts from Norway to Washington D.C.
The trains, located in the West Hall of Union Station, are hand-made replicas of real Norwegian trains set in a Nordic landscape complete with mountains, fjords and even skiers.
The Union Station holiday extravaganza and annual Norwegian tree lighting ceremony generally kicks off the first week of December, so mark your calendars. What makes this tree lighting special? The Norwegian Ambassador lights the tree, a tradition that goes back more than 20 years.
The Royal Norwegian Embassy presents this holiday tree to the people of Washington, D.C. as a gift of gratitude for the assistance Norway received during WWII and the continued friendship between the two countries.
After the ambassador flips the switch, a holiday show with local choir performances and a visit from Santa and Mrs. Claus follows.
D.C. Downtown Holiday Market
- Address: F Street NW, from 7th to 9th Streets NW
- Dates: November 20 – December 23, 2020
The Downtown Holiday Market is an annual tradition celebrating local D.C. makers. Set up as a long row of tents in front of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery, it’s a bright spot in the Penn Quarter and Chinatown during the holiday season.
The market is open 12pm-8pm daily with rotating vendors throughout the season, so be sure to stop by more than once.
You’ll find hot coffee from local roasters to go along with fresh mini donuts and other festive treats, plus 150 crafters, artisans and stylish boutiques with customized tents at this much-anticipated D.C. Christmas event.
Click to find all of our favorite D.C. Christmas Markets around the city!
—— Cancelled in 2020 ——
ZooLights and BrewLights
- Address: The National Zoo, 3001 Connecticut Ave, NW
- Dates: end of November until the new year
Each winter, the Smithsonian National Zoo lights up with glowing animal lanterns and over 500,000 LED lights. While the idyllic, sprawling DC zoological park is always a special experience for tourists and longtime visitors alike, there is something extra magical about exploring it at night.
You will discover unexpected light shows around every corner and enjoying special vending stands with hot drinks and holiday treats.
On one day a year, the zoo adds a special event to their ZooLights calendar: BrewLights. At this charity event, adults over age 21 can sample craft beer and microbrews from participating breweries. You’ll find Guinness, Founders, Sierra Nevada, and dozens of specialty breweries throughout the park, as well as complimentary snacks (who can say no to s’mores?).
BrewLights ticket holders also gain access to nine exclusive areas of the zoo, including Gorilla Cove and the Small Mammal House. You’ll be treated like a VIP!
BrewLights ticket holders are directly supporting conservation efforts at the Smithsonian National Zoo. To thank you for your contribution, you’ll be given a complimentary beer cup and a discount on retail items.
Sober attendees can buy designated driver tickets at a steep discount.
ICE! at the Gaylord National
- Address: 201 Waterfront Street, National Harbor, MD
- Dates: Mid-November through early January
Every year the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center turns into a winter wonderland filled with interactive ice sculptures and displays. Washington, D.C. doesn’t actually get that much snow, but you would never know it when you walk into ICE!
ICE! includes four two-story slides, a nativity carved from crystal-clear ice, 2 million pounds of colorful ice sculptures, and elaborate hand-carved scenes based on a yearly theme. Past tableaux have included Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas, A Christmas Story and The Polar Express.
The ice sculpture garden is maintained at a chilly nine degrees, so bundle up for your journey and make sure to leave time for hot cocoa and holiday treats afterwards.
The resort also offers plenty of other special activities for guests throughout the holiday season, from gingerbread decorating to ice tubing to scavenger hunts.
- Address: Nationals Park, 1500 S Capitol Street, SE
- Dates: throughout December
The world’s largest light maze takes over Nationals Park, with the ballpark transformed into a North Pole wonderland complete with a holiday market, cinema and skating trail.
While not the cheapest evening for your family, it is definitely something that should be experienced once. Enjoy snow falling and larger-than-life sculptures as you make your way through the astonishing Christmas-light maze, helping Santa track down his missing reindeer.
The market features dozens of artisans vending special treats prepared just for the event, and the perfect handmade gifts for everyone on your list.
Even a few favorite D.C. vendors like Ben’s Chili, Dog Tag Bakery and Meribeth’s Bakery join in the fun. We’ve been told that if someone asks you “May we Enchant that for you?” you should definitely say “Yes!”
A section called Santa’s Landing is where you can get professional photos taken with the big man himself. And keep an eye on the website for Paws ‘n’ Claus dates, which is when you can bring your pup to take photos with Santa too.
The District’s Holiday Boat Parade
- Address: All along the DC Wharf, Wharf St. SW
- Dates: Early December, dates vary
The Wharf in Washington D.C. hosts an annual holiday boat parade of lights filled with family fun. If you’re craving food and refreshments, head to the Waterfront Beer and Wine Garden or make some s’mores at the Camp Wharf fire pit before the parade begins.
Kids can meet Santa and ice skate on the picturesque property, too. During the parade, festive boats decorated by their owners pass by the Wharf through the Washington Channel, all leading up to a spectacular fireworks show. You can also listen to live musical acts during the 3-hour event.
The parade’s fanfare extends beyond the Wharf. Old Town Alexandria also hosts a boat show, along with pop-up food and drink stations from Port City Brew Co. and Vola’s Dockside Grill.
Whether you spend a night at the Wharf or explore other participating areas, there’s plenty to see and do at this once-yearly event.
Scottish Christmas Walk Weekend
- Address: From Wolfe & St. Asaph Streets to the market square, Old Town Alexandria, VA
- Dates: Saturday in early December
Often held on the same day as the Alexandria holiday boat parade, this stirring display of Scottish heritage centers around a parade featuring Scottish bagpipes and drums, Scottish dancers, tartaned marchers, reenactments, Scottie dogs, classic cars, local celebrities, and even Santa Claus!
Beyond the parade, visitors can sample a Taste of Scotland, with many traditional recipes as well as Scotch and ale tastings.
The goal of the Scottish Christmas Walk Weekend is to raise money for the Campagna Center, which runs several programs providing opportunities to children and families in Alexandria, VA. The Campagna center also hosts a holiday greens sale and a tour of the amazing historical Alexandria homes around the holiday season. The festivities typically raise over $250,000 in charitable donations.
A Christmas Carol at Ford’s Theater
- Address: Ford’s Theater, 511 10th St. NW
- Dates: mid-November through the new year
For many DC families, Christmas is not complete without experiencing a first-rate performance of A Christmas Carol, put on each year at the historic live theater best known as the site of Lincoln’s assassination.
It’s a good idea to arrive early for a chance to look around the gorgeous theater, which has been maintained in much the same state that it was in 1865. The basement provides a small museum with historical context for the lush décor surrounding spectators.
Then, get whisked away in a musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic Christmas ghost story, performed by some of the biggest names in DC theater. After Ebenezer learns his lesson and snow falls on stage, a quick walk through the streets of downtown DC will bring you to some of the best-reviewed and local favorite dining spots, whether you are in the mood for tapas, tandoori chicken or teriyaki tofu.
Handel’s Messiah at the Washington National Cathedral
- Address: The National Cathedral, 3101 Wisconsin Ave. NW
- Dates: Several dates in early December
This gorgeous space is a must-see location for DC visitors at any time of year, but it takes on a special magic around Christmastime. While it is modeled after a traditional European cathedral, with sweeping baroque art and architecture and extensive stained glass reliefs, it is open to people of all faiths, anyone seeking peaceful meditative space, and especially to lovers of music.
For the Christmas season, the Cathedral presents a period Baroque orchestra and world-class soloists performing Handel’s Messiah, a stunning piece of music that leaves very few dry eyes in the house as it crescendos to the famous Hallelujah chorus.
For families with young children or tight schedules, the National Cathedral also offers an abbreviated performance with all the most famous and beloved sections. And keep an eye out later in the season for choral concerts of classic Christmas carols in the Cathedral.
The Washington Ballet’s The Nutcracker
- Address: 3515 Wisconsin Avenue NW
- Dates: late November – late December
Enjoy a Christmas classic with a decidedly Washingtonian twist at the Washington Ballet. The production is set in historic Georgetown; historical figures of the region including George Washington, Harriet Tubman, John Paul Jones become characters in the classic tale of a young girl’s special Christmas gift.
Period costumes are on prominent display as more than 100 dancers take part in this annual tradition that celebrates DC history as well as more than 75 years of the Washington School of Ballet and its students.
- Address: All along the waterfront, Old Town Alexandria, VA
- Dates: December 24th
Head across the Potomac River to Old Alexandria, VA for one crazy Santa experience on Christmas Eve. What started out as a dare in 1986 has turned into an annual community event you won’t want to miss.
You’d think he’d be too busy with his crowded delivery schedule, but Santa takes some time to cruise from Founders Park to Point Lumley Park via waterskis and jet skis, along with his elves, reindeer pals, the Grinch, and a few other friends.
The excitement starts every Christmas Eve at 1 PM. A meet-and-greet happens after the show near the waterfront pavilion and behind the Torpedo Factory.
Middleburg Hunt Review
- Address: Washington Street & various locations, Middleburg, VA
- Dates: early December
The entire town of Middleburg, Virginia becomes an enchanted Christmastown each December, with traditional decorations that pair perfectly with the region’s antique street lamps and Federal-style buildings.
While special activities go on all month long, the central event of the season is the Middleburg Hunt Review on the first Saturday of December, a procession showing off the over 100 stately horses and adorable hounds of the red-coated, century-old Middleburg Hunt. A parade of more animals, floats, antique cars and local dignitaries follows, with feasting and music for all.
Check back in with the town all month for tree lightings, Breakfast with Santa, carol sing-a-longs and street fairs with beverage tastings. Middleburg truly becomes a Christmas village, and welcomes visitors who want to experience the magic.
Movie Nights at the National Museum of American History
- Address: American History Museum, 1300 Constitution Ave., NW
- Dates: Thanksgiving through Christmas, selected nights
All of your favorite Christmas classics head back to the big screen at the National Museum of American History’s Warner Bros. Theater, an intimate yet high-tech venue committed to preserving and exploring the legacy of American film.
Remember to buy tickets in advance–there is only one day and one showing offered per movie, so grab that ticket to the movie you love.
Christmas classics like It’s a Wonderful Life, White Christmas, Elf and A Christmas Story have been featured in the past. And yes, the ultimate holiday movie, Die Hard, will be shown too.