Guide to Christmas in Washington, D.C.: Lights, Parades, and Festivals

USA, Washington DC, Illuminared Christmas tree with White House in background
Greg Pease/Getty Images

The holiday season can be an expensive time to travel in the Capital Region, but fortunately, there are plenty of ways to enjoy Christmas, Hanukkah, and other winter holidays for free in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. this year.

Whether you're just stopping through, planning a family vacation, or just want to add a little festive joy to your trip to the Capital Region this November and December, you can stop by these free light displays, musical performances, community parades, and special events.

From Christmas tree lighting ceremonies and eight-day celebrations of Hanukkah to the annual "season's greenings" party at the Botanic Gardens, you're sure to find something free to do that will get you in the holiday spirit this year.

Attend a Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony

Around Thanksgiving each year, cities and communities across the Capital Region kick off the winter holiday season with their annual Christmas tree lighting ceremonies:

  • Fifth Annual CityCenterDC Holiday Tree Lighting: Takes place at The Park at CityCenter, is one of the biggest events of the early holiday season, and will take place at 6 p.m. on Saturday, November 24, 2018.
  • Grand Illumination Annapolis: On Sunday, November 25, 2018, at 5:30 p.m., you can enjoy dancing, carols, a visit from Santa, and the official lighting of the downtown Annapolis Christmas tree, which is located near the Market House.
  • Village of Leesburg Tree Lighting Festival: On Saturday, November 17, 2018, from 4 to 7 p.m., you can enjoy horse-drawn carriage rides, acapella musical performances, visits with Santa, gingerbread house making, and various activities for kids ending with the lighting of the "Spectacular Musical Tree," which will perform musical light shows daily throughout the holiday season.
  • National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony: The National Christmas Tree and the Pathway of Peace are illuminated during the holiday season each evening from dusk until 11 p.m. Seasonal displays include a Yule log, a large-scale model train, and a Christmas manger.

Some events require tickets in advance for entry, even though the ceremony and activities are free to enjoy. Visit each venue's website to check for ticketing information and details about event rules, parking, and public transportation.

Season's Greenings at the Botanic Gardens

From November 22, 2018, through January 1, 2019, "Season’s Greenings" returns to the United States Botanic Gardens in Washington, D.C. This unique exhibit features model trains and incredible replicas of some of the most famous buildings, monuments, and landmarks in the Capital Region, and a new theme each year focuses on a different part of American life.

The 2018 theme "All Aboard!" will explore various historic railroad stations across the United States. Model trains will chug along tracks underneath thousands of winter blooms—including a showcase of poinsettias—to reach replicas of the stations set up throughout the gardens. The D.C. landmarks, which are made of plant material, will again be on display in the Garden Court.

National Hanukkah Menorah Lighting Ceremony

Located on the White House grounds at the Ellipse, the National Hanukkah Menorah is the largest public menorah in the world. The Grand Lighting Ceremony for this giant menorah will take place on Sunday, December 2, 2018, from 2 to 4 p.m. but requires free advance tickets to attend.

The event, "National Menorah: Chanukah on the Ellipse," will also feature musical performances by Dreidelman & the Maccabees, The U.S. Army Band "Pershing's Own," and The "8th Day" Band as well as hot latkes, free dreidels and menorah kits, and fun for the entire family. Although there won't be a party the following seven nights, you can expect a small crowd to gather nearby for the nightly candle lighting at sunset in celebration of the rest of the Hanukkah holiday.

ZooLights at the National Zoo

The Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington, D.C. gets a makeover for the holiday season each year. Known as ZooLights, this free attraction lights up the zoo with festive activities, dazzling displays, and tasty treats nightly from 5 to 9 p.m. from Friday, November 23, 2018, through Tuesday, January 1, 2019 (except December 24, 25, and 31). 

Featuring thousands of animated lights, winter-themed craft activities, ice sculpting demonstrations, choral groups, live performances, and storytelling hours, ZooLights events are appropriate and exciting for visitors of all ages—and completely free to enjoy. While at ZooLights, you can also take a ride on the Smithsonian's National Zoo Choo-Choo, a trackless train that tours the Great Cats exhibit and lighting displays throughout the zoo, or take a plunge down a 150-foot-long snowless tubing track instead.

Festival of Lights at the Mormon Temple

The Washington, D.C. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, also known as the Mormon Temple, is open to all during the Christmas season during its annual Festival of Lights event. This impressive church and its surrounding grounds shine brightly each year with more than 450,000 sparkling Christmas lights, and each night, a different local musical group performs a live concert in the state-of-the-art theater inside the Mormon Temple.

The 41st Annual Festival of Lights will take place from November 29 to December 31, 2018. The Mormon Temple is located in Kensington, Maryland, and there will be free shuttle service between the Forest Glen Metro stop and the Washington D.C. Temple grounds on Tuesday through Friday evenings for guests of the church.

Manassas Christmas Parade

See amazing floats, local celebrities, live performances, marching bands, equestrians, animated characters, giant balloons, and Santa Claus himself at the annual Manassas Christmas Parade in Old Town Manassas, Virginia, on Saturday, December 1, 2018.

Starting at 10 a.m., the parade will march from Mathis Avenue to the intersection of Center Street and Grant Avenue. In the afternoon, the Manassas Christmas parade will be followed by Santa reading Christmas stories at the Train Depot, a gingerbread contest display in Old Town, and a holiday home tour of local residences decorated for the season.

Additionally, you can start your holiday celebrations in Manassas early by heading to Old Town the night before the parade (Friday, November 30, 2018) for the annual "Santa Lights Manassas" event, which is also free to attend and starts at 5:15 p.m.

Middleburg Hunt and Christmas Parade

Approximately 100 horses, riders in red coats and dozens of hounds come through the town of Middleburg each year for the annual Middleburg Hunt and Hound Review. Immediately following the Hunt, the Middleburg Christmas Parade features a unique assortment of floats, marching bands, local community groups, antique fire trucks, and a variety of animals including horses, llamas, and dogs.

The Middleburg Hunt and Christmas Parade will take place on Saturday, December 1, 2018, but the city also offers a variety of festive holiday events all weekend long. Starting with Friday night's Tree Lighting Ceremony and carol singing, festivities continue Saturday morning with a breakfast with Santa from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m., an all-day craft fair, a 10 a.m. hot chocolate warm-up, and the 11 a.m. hunt and review. In the afternoon, you can enjoy hayrides, a soup and ham biscuit lunch, the 2 p.m. Christmas parade, and a "Spirits of Middleburg" celebration from 3 to 6 p.m. On Sunday afternoon starting at 2 p.m., you can finish off your weekend by attending the annual Nutcracker Tea Party.

Alexandria Scottish Christmas Walk Weekend and Parade

Hundreds of Scottish clansmen will march with their bagpipes through Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, on Saturday, December 1, 2018, for the annual Alexandria Scottish Christmas Walk Parade. Also featuring pipe and drum bands, Scottish dancers, re-enactment groups, Scottie dog groups, dignitaries, and Santa Claus, the parade is one of the largest celebrations of Scottish culture in the region—if not the entire United States.

Along with the free parade, the Alexandria Scottish Christmas Walk weekend also features several ticketed events including the Taste of Scottland dining experience, Holiday Home Tours, and a holiday market featuring Heather & Greens. These paid events are some of the largest fundraiser opportunities for the Campagna Center, a non-profit group benefiting Alexandria-area youth and families.

Alexandria Holiday Boat Parade of Lights

The 19th annual Alexandria Holiday Boat Parade of Lights will take place at the historic Alexandria waterfront on December 1, 2018, starting at 5:30 p.m.

A favorite holiday celebration in both Old Town Alexandria and Washington, D.C., the Alexandria Boat Parade features 50 powerboats and sailboats as well as the District's fireboat, the John Glenn, spouting water 70 feet into the air. During the event, you can watch a unique parade of decorated boats as they "march" along the Potomac River and enjoy festivities on the dock and inside the Torpedo Factory Art Center from 2 to 9 p.m.

Wolf Trap National Park Holiday Sing-a-Long

Wolf Trap National Park in Vienna, Virginia, hosts a variety of musical performances throughout the year, but to kick off the holiday season, the Filene Center will host the "Wolf Trap National Park Holiday Sing-A-Long" on Saturday, December 1, 2018, at 4 p.m.

Led by "The President's Own" United States Marine Band, members of local choirs and vocal groups will help guests sing along to some of the season's best tunes including "Silent Night," which closes out the night with a guided candlelight processional. You'll enjoy singing Christmas carols and Hanukkah songs alike at this annual event, which is free to attend and does not require advanced reservations.

Leesburg Holiday Parade and Festival

On December 8, 2018, you can bring the whole family to catch the Christmas spirit at the Holiday Parade and Festival in Leesburg, Virginia, which kicks off on King Street at 6 p.m. this year. Featuring local musicians, seasonal floats, Santa Claus, and various dance and performance troupes from around the area, the annual parade will start at Ida Lee Drive and proceed down King Street to Fairfax Street.

Annapolis Christmas Lights Boat Parade

Similar to but smaller than the Alexandria Boat Parade, the Annapolis Christmas Lights Boat Parade features dozens of private boats showing off their Christmas decor in the Annapolis Harbor.

The Eastport Yach Club Parade of Lights will take place on Saturday, December 8, 2018, from 6 to 8 p.m. in the Harbor near the Spa Creek Bridge. You can watch from various viewing spots along the waterfront completely free of charge, and several restaurants in the area will be open during the event.

Witness the Waterskiing Santa

Each year on Christmas Eve, you can catch one of the most unusual holiday events of the year on the Potomac River between Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, and the waterfront of Washington, D.C.

Known as Waterskiing Santa, this annual event features the Christmas patriarch gliding across the water along with flying elves, a jet ski-riding Grinch, Frosty the Snowman, and other Christmas characters. Also featuring a sing-along and various treats on either side of the Potomac River, this annual event is sure to put a smile on your face on the day before Christmas.