Keep the Season Bright

Avoid cabin fever and get those holiday guests out of the house

There are many rites of passage signaling the transition from childhood to adulthood. For me, the turning point was in my mid-30s, when being “home for the holidays” suddenly meant that everyone was coming to my house. Instead of my dad picking me up at the airport, heaving my bags into the car and chauffeuring me to the mecca of my mom’s stocked fridge, I became the host. The scribbles on my notepad shifted from “Dear Santa” wish lists to “Things to Do.” Now I’m the one responsible for buying skim milk instead of 2 percent for my sister-in-law’s cereal. It’s my job to empty out dresser drawers and clear away closet space for unpacked clothes. And I’m the one who is annually seduced by the seasonal magazine covers, with their promises of easy-to-brine turkeys and homemade gift wrap.

Like adulthood, holiday hosting doesn’t always live up to its promise. After the warm greetings and the getting settled, perfectly placed twinkle lights can quickly become a pretty background for clashing views on politics and piles of dirty towels. The business of hosting can leave you as shaken as a snow globe and whispering to your spouse before bed, “How many more days to go?”

Whether the suitcases littering your guest room belong to college-age children or Midwestern cousins finally taking their turn to travel east, the secret to holiday harmony is this: Get out of the house and let someone else make your guests merry for a while.

In addition to the usual great and iconic Washington-area holiday events (the lighting of the National Christmas Tree, The Nutcracker at the Warner Theatre, ice skating in the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden), you’ll find oodles of diversions to make the season festive. Here are a few ideas to get the gang out of the house and into the holiday spirit.

Revisit History

Prepare for a holiday outing to Old Town Alexandria by polishing your brogue. In early December, hundreds of kilt-wearing bagpipers and Scottie dogs take to the streets during the annual Scottish Christmas Walk. On winter weekends you’ll also find handbell concerts, boats festooned with colored lights, wandering barbershop singers, jazz musicians and Christmas caroling. To wrap up your gift gathering, explore the Torpedo Factory, a warehouse brimming with works by 165 visual artists. Watch sculptors shape clay and metal artists weld. Talk to a painter about what inspired her still life. And check out the torpedo on display in the main hall, which was manufactured here in 1945. Now home to 82 studios and six galleries, the quirky space was originally (as its name suggests) a torpedo factory for the U.S. Navy from 1918 until the end of World War II. After contemplating the transition from the crafting of weaponry to the crafting of artwork, treat yourself to authentic fish and chips at nearby Eamonn’s.

Another great excursion during the holiday stretch is historic Mount Vernon, where costumed guides give candlelight tours of George Washington’s greenery-bedecked estate. You’ll even find a camel on the grounds, commemorating a time when our first president, who loved exotic animals, brought one in to amuse his Christmas guests (now that’s a host). November visitors are invited to watch former White House chef Roland Mesnier build a gingerbread replica of the mansion. And, if you’re there in the daytime, don’t miss Martha Washington’s private retreat on the third floor, which is only open during the winter festivities. Her recently transformed Garret Bedchamber features yellow silk and damask tapestries made by hand to match newly discovered original source document descriptions. With good timing, “Mrs. Washington” will be on hand to greet you.

Scottish Walk: 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Dec. 4. Beginning at the corner of Wilkes and South St. Asaph streets in Old Town, Alexandria, and ending at King and Royal streets. Free.

Torpedo Factory: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily; closes at 9 p.m. Thursdays. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas Day. 105 N. Union St., Alexandria; 703-838-4565; Metro stop: King Street (Blue Line).

Eamonn’s: 728 King St., Alexandria; 703-299-8384;

Mount Vernon: 3200 Mount Vernon Memorial Highway, Mount Vernon; 703-780-2000; Chef Mesnier creates the gingerbread mansion from Nov. 14-22; holiday events Nov. 26-Jan. 6; 9 a.m.-4 p.m. daily; $15 adults, $7 ages 6-11, under 6 free. Check website for special event times. Candlelight tours additional fee.

Take in the Greenery

One of D.C.’s loveliest spots at any time of year is the U.S. Botanic Garden. Housed in a neoclassical conservatory inspired by the 17th-century orangery at Versailles, its lush, fragrant interiors will warm you up and the verdant orchid room will transport you to a different climate altogether. During the holidays, replicas of the Capitol city’s most famous buildings are painstakingly created from plant materials—a gourd serves as the domed roof of the Jefferson Memorial; cork and shell fungus as the wavy walls of the National Museum of the American Indian; sycamore leaves as the roof of the Smithsonian Castle. Model trains and one of D.C.’s largest indoor Christmas trees add to the festive atmosphere.

For a quiet interlude, take a winter walk at the National Arboretum. Along with more than 400 acres of glorious conifers and fruiting holly, the arboretum features 22 Corinthian columns removed from the original East Building of the Capitol. These pillars formed the backdrop for inaugurations from Andrew Jackson to Dwight D. Eisenhower. Stroll through the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum to marvel at the smallest evergreen species, paying special homage to the oldest bonsai tree, a Japanese white pine “in training” since 1625. You’ll return to your gift-wrap-strewn house in a state of Zen.

U.S. Botanic Garden: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, with extended hours most Tuesdays and Thursdays in December (6-8 p.m.) for holiday music. Christmas exhibit from Nov. 24-Jan. 2. Free. 100 Maryland Ave. SW, D.C.; 202-225-8333; Metro stop: Federal Center SW (Blue and Orange lines).

U.S. National Arboretum: 8 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, except Christmas. Free. 3501 New York Ave. NE, D.C.; 202-245-2726; Metro stop: Stadium Armory (Blue and Orange lines). Requires a bus ride and two-block walk from Metro.

Find Harmony

Our ordinary human ears probably can’t appreciate the exquisitely fine-tuned acoustics at the Music Center at Strathmore in Montgomery County. But you should give it a try at several great events Strathmore is offering to celebrate this winter’s festivities. Highlights include a circus-meets-symphony spectacular—jugglers and contortionists, choreographed in sync with orchestral sounds—and a National Philharmonic family concert of holiday favorites, free for kids 7-17. It’s Christmas bliss whether your pitch is perfect or not.

Strathmore: “Holiday Cirque de la Symphonie” with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, 8 p.m. Dec. 8. $28-$88. National Philharmonic Presents Holiday Celebration with the Washington Symphonic Brass, 8 p.m. Dec. 22. $25-$45, kids 7-17 free. 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda; 301-581-5100; Metro stop: Grosvenor-Strathmore (Red Line).

If nothing says Christmas to you like the sound of a mighty organ accompanying a silken-robed choir, don’t miss a holiday concert at the Washington National Cathedral. The cathedral presents pageants and musical experiences throughout December, including the “Joy of Christmas” processional during which carols are sung in the gothic surroundings of this, the world’s sixth largest cathedral. Save time to visit an exhibit of crèches from its collection of more than 500 nativity sets from around the globe.


Washington National Cathedral: “Joy of Christmas,” the Cathedral Choral Society’s presentation, noon and 4 p.m. Dec. 10 and 4 p.m. Dec. 11. $25-$85. Crèche exhibit: Nov. 21-Jan. 7. Free. 3101 Wisconsin Ave. NW, D.C.; 202-537-6200; Metro stop: Tenleytown/AU (Red Line).

For years, our family’s holiday tradition has included a performance of The Christmas Revels. We settle into velvet-cushioned seats at Lisner Auditorium and surrender to the spectacle. Marking the winter solstice as a common point of celebration, the pageant explores Yuletide rituals in different parts of the world and defies easy description; it is a melding of medieval music, dance and drama that encourages audience participation. You’ll be singing rounds and, if you like, folk-dancing in the aisles. One Nordic-themed show featured a procession of children, robed in white for St. Lucia’s Day, descending the darkened aisles with candlelit head wreaths—a quietly sacred sight after the rousing drinking songs of the previous scene. The Revels remind me that the “turning of the year” is cause for both kinds of moments.

Washington Revels: This year’s theme is “Ancient Spain,” with matinee and evening performances Dec. 3, 4 and 9-11. Shows are usually more than two hours long, but should engage all but the youngest (or most fidgety) children. $15-$45. G.W. Lisner Auditorium, 21st and H streets NW, D.C.; 301-587-3835; Metro stop: Foggy Bottom/GWU (Blue and Orange lines).

The Kennedy Center offers something for everyone. At one end of the musical spectrum lies the Concert Hall, with its glittering crystal chandeliers and massive pipe organ, where the National Symphony Orchestra performs Handel’s Messiah. At the other end is the intimate, modern-looking Terrace Theater, where jazz masters play seasonal piano music in syncopated perfection.

John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, D.C.: Messiah, 7 p.m. Dec. 15, 8 p.m. Dec. 16 and 17, 1 p.m. Dec. 18 in the Concert Hall. $20-$85. NPR’s “A Jazz Piano Christmas,” 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. Dec. 10 in the Terrace Theater. $45. 2700 F St. NW; 202-467-4600; Metro stop: Foggy Bottom/GWU (Blue and Orange lines).

Music that prompts activity might be the perfect antidote to holiday feasting and overindulgence. The Spanish Ballroom at Glen Echo hosts social dancing during weekends throughout the year. To learn the steps ahead of time, try an introductory lesson in swing, contra, salsa, or even the waltz. But be forewarned: The beautifully restored 1933 Mediterranean-style art deco building is not heated. So wear layers and keep moving! 

Glen Echo Ballroom: See website for times and dates. Tickets at door only, $5-$15. 7300 MacArthur Boulevard, Glen Echo; 301-634-2222;

DC (Alternative) Museum Crawl

If you’re keen to try something different in the Nation’s Capital, consider two “only in D.C.” excursions: the International Spy Museum, which calls itself the “only public museum in the United States solely dedicated to espionage”; and the Newseum, which presents life-altering events through the news reporter’s lens. Both are modern, sleek crowd-pleasers packed with interactivity and intrigue. Look for discount coupons online as both D.C. museums charge admission.

Nearby you’ll find the National Building Museum, whose magnificent Great Hall is the site of inaugural balls. Grown-ups will be awed by eight “colossal” Corinthian columns—at 75 feet, among the tallest in the word—and kids will be inspired (or humbled) by the Lego Architecture exhibit. You can build your own Lego creation, or make architectural magic with another medium in the Gingerbread Workshop.

International Spy Museum: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Nov. 1-23; 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Nov. 25 and 26; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Nov. 27-Dec. 3; 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Dec. 24; 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Dec. 26-30. $15 for kids 5-11; $18 for adults; $17 for seniors. 800 F St. NW, D.C.; 202-393-7798; Metro stops: Gallery Place/Chinatown (Red, Yellow, and Green lines) or Metro Center (Orange, Blue and Red lines).

Newseum: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily; closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day. $12.95-$21.95; free for children 6 and under. 555 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, D.C.; 888-639-7386; Metro stops: Archives/Navy Memorial (Green and Yellow lines); Judiciary Square (Red Line); Smithsonian (Blue and Orange lines); or Gallery Place/Chinatown (Red, Yellow and Green lines).

National Building Museum: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday. Gingerbread Workshop 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Dec. 10, $65 for the public, $50 for members. Must register online by Dec. 1. Or,
see the how-to video at 401 F St. NW, D.C.; 202-272-2448; Metro stops: Judiciary Square (Red Line) or Gallery Place/Chinatown (Red, Yellow and Green lines).

Retail Therapy

You don’t have to go as far as the North Pole to find unique gifts for the holidays. During the last two weekends  of November, the Frederick County Fairgrounds hosts the annual Maryland Christmas Show, just 45 miles from the District. Seven buildings as well as festive big-top tents are filled with an array of handmade goods, including log cabin quilts, typewriter key earrings, custom-made bookshelves, hand-carved wooden spoons and more. You can even buy fresh strudels and cookies to fulfill your holiday “baking” obligations.

Only a few minutes away in town, the streets of Frederick’s 75-block historic district are lined with shops, both fun and funky. Spend an hour trying on vintage jeans at the Velvet Lounge and gathering stocking stuffers at Retro-Metro. Then treat your group to a fine repast at Top Chef finalist Bryan Voltaggio’s acclaimed restaurant, VOLT. Request a table with a view of the kitchen and enjoy the sight of someone else doing the cooking. For a harried host anticipating a week’s worth of culinary pressures, it’s the perfect holiday treat.

Maryland Christmas Show: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday; Nov. 18-20 and 25-27. $7, adults; $4, children 10 and under; parking, $2. Frederick County Fairgrounds, 797 E. Patrick St., Frederick; 301-845-0003;

Velvet Lounge: 10:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday and Saturday; noon-5 p.m. Sunday. 203 N. Market St., Frederick; 301-695-5700;

Retro-Metro: 10:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday; 10:30 a.m.-7 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; noon-5 p.m. Sunday. 213 N. Market St., Frederick; 301-698-8100;

VOLT: noon-10 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday. 228 N. Market St., Frederick; 301-696-8658;

Dani James grew up in Northern Virginia and currently lives in Silver Spring.

Categories: Travel