Christmas in Washington DC

This post covers the top things to do on Christmas in Washington, DC (updated for 2020), including nighttime activities, free things to do, and family-friendly options.

Be sure to read our master post on things to do in DC for even more ideas.

 

Christmas in Washington DC Video

 


TOP 10 EVENTS AND THINGS TO DO

This section covers our top ten list of things to do in DC for the Christmas holidays.

The city decks the halls, light the menorah, and celebrates the holidays with markets, parades, and joyous celebrations. 



1. See the Christmas Tree Lit Up

The National Christmas Tree gets lit each year on the first Thursday of December and marks the official beginning of the Christmas season here in Washington, DC.

 

 

Usually, you can attend the ceremony, which has taken place since 1923 if you apply and win the lottery but for 2020 the ceremony is virtual and open to all. The lighting ceremony and concert will be live streamed on their website – https://thenationaltree.org/

When: December 3, 2020

You can visit the lit-up tree any time after for free!

It’s located on the south side of the White House on what’s called the Ellipse, and the view can be seen from our National Mall tour

Near the National Christmas tree is the largest menorah in the world, the National Menorah. You can also attend the lighting ceremony if you have a ticket


2. Attend a Christmas Play

While 2020 is a unique year for holiday events, you cannot have Christmas in the Capitol without a production of A Christmas Carol.

The most well-known production from Ford’s Theatre has been canceled for the 2020 season, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still experience its famous Craig Wallace as Scrooge.

Ford’s Theatre will be producing a radio version. Details to be released soon at www.fords.org

A Christmas Carol 2020 at Olney Theatre
November 27 – December 27, 2020 – Get Tickets
 
If you’re up for venturing outside of downtown, Olney Theatre will be hosting the one-man show, A Christmas Carol, in person with safety protocols in place.

For other things to do at night in DC, check out our night section below. 

 

3. Take a Holiday Lights Walking Tour

We offer an evening stroll through downtown DC to view some of the best holiday light displays – from the classic Macy’s window displays to the National Christmas Tree.
 
Or explore the Georgetown Window Displays on our History & Holiday Lights Georgetown tour.

Tickets are limited for this tour so book now.

Many of the city’s local neighborhood Main Streets are sponsoring Holiday Lights and Window display competitions. You can shop local and vote your favorite in Logan Circle, Lower Georgia Ave, Eastern Market, Columbia Heights & More.

Find out more at: https://dcholidaylights.org/


5. Explore Union Station

Union Station is America’s second busiest train station, only after Penn Station in New York. This station has a lot of commuters and a lot of history!

 

 

There has been a tree lighting ceremony here every year since 1997. There’s also a holiday train display in the West Hall that’s sure to delight all ages!

You can also get your holiday shopping done while you’re there, as there are a number of boutiques to explore. 


6. Christmas at the Cathedral

2020 date uncertain

The National Cathedral is a beautiful place to visit. You can even find the Darth Vader gargoyle on it if you search hard enough!

While they offer tours throughout the year, the National Cathedral puts on special programs during holidays, including Christmas at the Cathedral concert.

There will be a mix of medieval and modern music being performed that will sure you put you in the holiday spirit!

Tickets begin at $25 ($15 for students) and you can get yours here


7. Wreaths Across America

Participating in Wreaths Across America is a special way to honor our fallen veterans.

Every year, this organization lays out thousands of holiday wreaths on graves in military cemeteries across America, including Arlington National Cemetery.

 

 

Volunteers will make sure every grave gets placed with a beautiful wreath, and the effect of seeing these thousands of wreaths laid out is incredibly moving. (website)

If you can’t participate, you can still enjoy the handwork by visiting Arlington National Cemetery on one of our free walking tours


8. Holidays Through History Open House 

Ever wanted to walk through a president’s house?

No, we’re not talking about the White House, we’re talking about the Woodrow Wilson House, which today is a museum to our 28th president.

 

 

Celebrate the holidays here with a self-guided tour of the festively decorated home and participate in activities while enjoying music and historic cocktails.

The event sells out fast, so be sure to get your tickets here


9. Visit a Holiday Market

Holiday Markets are wonderful places to get your holiday shopping done.

They usually feature local artists and craftsmen who sell their unique wares that become the treasures you gift your loved ones.

 

 

There will be a number of markets in DC during Christmas:

These are free to attend! For more free things to do in DC, check out our free section below. 


10. Save Money with a Tourist Attraction Discount Pass 

Save yourself some money this holiday season with the tourist attraction discount pass

These passes bundle together many popular attractions and tours into one discounted price and can save you over 50%, leaving you with more money to spend on present shopping!

They also can save you time with skip-the-ticket-line privileges. 

 

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Attractions you can see with these passes include:

  • CitySights Hop-on Hop-off Bus Tour
  • International Spy Museum
  • Madame Tussauds
  • The Capital Ferris Wheel
  • George Washington’s Home

We detail how these passes work and help you decide which, if any, is best for you. 

 


THINGS TO DO AT NIGHT

DC at night is lovely and full of things to do, especially around Christmas!

We have a number of things to do at night in DC listed in our top 10 section above, such as seeing the National Christmas Tree and National Menorah lit up at night.   

Below we have a list of a few more things to do after the sun goes down. 
 

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For more nighttime activities, visit our post on things to do at night in DC


Boat Parade of Lights

Dec. 7, 2020

The annual Holiday Boat Parade of Lights takes place in Alexandria again this year. This family-friendly event invites you out to see the boat parade floating down the Potomac River.

The parade stretches a mile along Old Town Alexandria’s waterfront and there are a number of places to observe from: 

  • Founders Park (351 North Union Street)
  • Alexandria City Marina (0 Cameron Street)
  • Waterfront Park (1 King Street)
  • Shipyard/Harborside Park (1 Wilkes Street)
  • Ford’s Landing Park (99 Franklin Street)

If you want to explore more of Old Town Alexandria we recommend taking our Old Town Alexandria free walking tour


Christmas at Mount Vernon 

December 18 & 19, 2020

Come out to Mount Vernon and celebrate the Christmas festivities!

Tour George Washington’s estate and see where the very first family lived. You can learn about the history of the place and partake in a number of holiday activities.

There will be a holiday fireworks show, you can see how 18th-century chocolate is made and there will be a special guest, Aladdin the camel

Grab your tickets here


Visit CityCenter DC 

There are multiple Christmas tree lighting ceremonies to take place in the district throughout the holidays. One of the first of the season happens in the centrally located CityCenter.

This event is fun for the whole family and free to attend.

Check back on the website to see the 2020 tree lighting date and details announced.


Capitol Christmas Tree Lighting

Another place to see a Christmas tree lighting is at the U.S. Capitol!

The tree will be lit on the west side of the Capitol and has been a tradition since the first time it was lit in 1964.

 

 

This year it’s called “The People’s Tree” and is chosen from a different national forest each year.

This year’s U.S. Capitol Christmas tree will be from Carson National Forest in New Mexico.

To learn more about the Capitol Christmas Tree click here

 


FREE THINGS TO DO

DC is loaded with free things to do! A lot of the items we’ve listed in other sections like Zoo Lights are completely free to attend. 

Here are a few more free activities to enjoy in DC during Christmas time. 

For even more budget-friendly ideas, check out our post on free things to do in DC


National Botanical Gardens Christmas Display

2020 dates have not been announced

The National Botanical Garden is a great free place to visit anytime you’re in Washington, DC.

It will be transformed this holiday season so there will be a number of events to partake in.

This year there will be a train room where you can enjoy plant-based recreations of icon train stations from across the United States, like New York City’s Grand Central Terminal, St. Louis’ Union Station, and more.

There will also be a botanical version of DC’s Union Station!

There will also be a series of concerts that will keep the Conservatory open late until 8 pm on certain Tuesday and Thursday evenings in December.


Take a Sightseeing Tour!

Many of our guided walks are free to join and operate on a pay-what-you-like basis, which means you decide what a tour was worth or what you could afford (even free) when the tour is over.

 

 

We also have self-guided tours and GPS-enabled audio tours of neighborhoods that you will likely visit as a tourist in the city.

To check out our full tour schedule, click here.

 


Willard Hotel

The Willard Hotel is one of the most famous hotels in Washington, DC, located right near the White House.

The lobby will be decorated beautifully and will be hosting nightly choral concerts that you and your loved ones are welcome to attend. You can also join them for holiday afternoon tea!

To learn more, view their website here


Macy’s Holiday Windows

Like most Macy’s nationwide, the DC store downtown unveils their holiday windows mid-November with holiday theme displays.

Walk down the street to see them all or pop into the store for even more.

Make your way the 14th and F ST NW. This is the back entrance but you can still get in this way.


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About the author

Canden is a historian and tour guide in Washington DC with 3 published books about the city. She has written for HuffPost Travel and has been featured in the Washington Post, WTOP, and numerous other DC papers. She's also been interviewed by the Travel Channel and Discovery Family Channel. Canden is the host of our podcast, Tour Guide Tell All

With a M.A. in History from University College London and a B.A. in History from Elon University, she is an authority on D.C. history, and has led tours in the city for over 10 years. She currently resides in DC, but has also lived in London and South Korea, and has travelled to 25 countries. Her two children (both under the age of 3) have their passports and own frequent flier accounts.