The Holidays in Washington, D.C.: Lights, Parades, and Festivals

2016 National Christmas Tree

Mark Wilson / 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 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, don't look over 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. 

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Attend a Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony

National Christmas Tree

 Mark Wilson / Staff / Getty Images

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: This lighting takes place at The Park at CityCenter, and is one of the biggest events of the early holiday season. Come out for this event on November 30, 2019, beginning at 6 p.m.
  • Grand Illumination Annapolis: On Sunday, December 1, 2019, at 5:30 p.m., 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 23, 2019, from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., celebrate with 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.

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Season's Greenings at the Botanic Gardens

U.S. Botanic Garden Christmas Tree

U.S. Botanic Garden 

From November 28, 2019, through January 5, 2020, "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 theme for 2019 is "America's Gardens," and the exhibition explores famous conservatories, fountains, and arboretums from across the U.S. Visitors will be able to see miniature versions of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, the animal topiaries at the Franklin Conservatory in Ohio, Missouri's famous Climatron, and more. On select nights, live performers sing seasonal classics to enjoy as you peruse the grounds.

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National Hanukkah Menorah Lighting Ceremony

National Chanukah Menorah, Washington D.C.

 Win McNamee / Staff / Getty Images

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 22, 2019, beginning at 4 p.m. The event is free to attend, but you do need to reserve a ticket beforehand.

The event, "National Menorah: Chanukah on the Ellipse," will also feature musical performances by Dreidelman & the Maccabees, The U.S. Marine Band "The President's Own," 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.

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ZooLights at the National Zoo

Zoo Lights Entrance, National Zoo, Washington D.C.

Coast-to-Coast / Getty Images

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 p.m. to 9 p.m. from November 29, 2019, through January 1, 2020 (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, don't forget to 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.

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Manassas Christmas Parade

Manassas Christmas Parade

Carl Dunn

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 7, 2019.

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 for the annual "Santa Lights Manassas" event, which is also free to attend and starts at 5:15 p.m.

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Celebrate Christmas in Middleburg

Approximately 100 horses, riders in red coats and dozens of hounds come through the town of Middleburg, Virginia, 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 7, 2019, 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 silent auction and breakfast with Santa, an all-day craft fair, a hot chocolate warm-up, and the hunt and review. In the afternoon, enjoy hayrides, a soup and ham biscuit lunch, the Christmas parade, and a "Spirits of Middleburg" celebration. On Sunday afternoon, end the weekend celebrations by attending the annual Live Animal Christmas Pageant at Foxcroft School.

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Alexandria Scottish Christmas Walk Weekend and Parade

Scottish Christmas Walk Parade

Richard Nowitz / Alexandria Convention & Visitors Association

Hundreds of Scottish clansmen will march with their bagpipes through Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, on Saturday, December 7, 2019, 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.

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Alexandria Boat Parade of Lights

Alexandria Boat Parade of Lights

Emilio Labrador / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The 19th annual Alexandria Holiday Boat Parade of Lights will take place at the historic Alexandria waterfront on December 7, 2019, 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, 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.

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09 of 12

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 in the park will host the "Wolf Trap National Park Holiday Sing-A-Long" on Saturday, December 7, 2019, 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.

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Leesburg Holiday Parade and Festival

On December 7, 2019, 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.

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Eastport Yacht Club Parade of Lights

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 is always on the second Saturday of December in the Harbor near the Spa Creek Bridge. Watch from various viewing spots along the waterfront completely free of charge, and several restaurants in the area will be open during the event. 

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Witness the Waterskiing Santa

Santa Claus Waterskis On The Potomac River

Mark Wilson / Staff / Getty Images 

Each year on Christmas Eve, 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.