This post covers the top things to do on Christmas in Washington, DC (updated for 2021), 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.
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
The 2020 ceremony was virtual and open to all with the lighting ceremony and concert live streamed on their website - https://thenationaltree.org/ - no announcement about the 2021 ceremony has been made yet.
When: The 2021 Date has not been announced as of Sept.
The National Christmas tree is an actual tree - planted on the Ellipse, south of the White House, but in early 2021 the tree was damaged in a storm. The plan for 2021 has not been made public but usually they plant another tree and you can visit the lit-up tree any time after the lighting ceremony for free!
It's located on the south side of the White House on what's called the Ellipse - we visit it on our Holiday Lights of DC 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 2021 is a unique year for holiday events, you cannot have Christmas in the capital without a production of A Christmas Carol.
The most well-known production from Ford's Theatre will return for 2021!
For other things to do at night in DC, check out our night section below.
3. Take a Holiday Lights Walking Tour
Holiday Lights in the Neighborhoods:
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
2021 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!
Choral Evensong will be happening on December 26, 2021 at 4pm. This service is an hour that is led entirely by the choir.
7. Wreaths Across America
December 18, 2021
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 visit 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. (The 2021 dates have not been announced)
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:
- Downtown DC Holiday Market - Nov. 19 - Dec. 23, 2021 | 12pm-8pm Daily
- Heurich House Museum Christkindlmarkt - Dec 3-5, 2021
- Swedish Christmas Bazaar - Dates TBD for 2021
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.
Attractions you can see with these passes include:
- CitySights Hop-on Hop-off Bus Tour
- International Spy Museum
- 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.
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.
For more nighttime activities, visit our post on things to do at night in DC.
Boat Parade of Lights
Dec. 4, 2021
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 17 & 18, 2021
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 2021 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 Six Rivers National Forest in California.
To learn more about the Capitol Christmas Tree click here.
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
The National Botanical Garden is a great free place to visit anytime you're in Washington, DC but will remain closed for 2021.
However, the outdoor gardens are open and for the holidays they are decorating the area with winterberries, lights, and greenery will be placed in the Terrace Gardens and Bartholdi Park from Nov. 23, 2020, through Jan. 10, 2021.
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.
To check out our full tour schedule, click here.
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 or join our Holiday Lights Walking Tour to see them!