The Best Washington DC Christmas Events for Families [in 2019]!

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When the final golden leaves have fallen off the trees in the nation’s capital, it’s time for Washington DC Christmas events. From the lighting of the National Christmas Tree on the White House Ellipse to the colorful, frozen sculptures at ICE! at the Gaylord National on the Potomac River, there are lots of holiday events in DC for your family to enjoy.

For Christmas in DC, Fountains are transformed into places to ice skate, botanic gardens into grand light displays, and model trains chug through conservatories. The tallest and prettiest evergreen trees are brought in to decorate The National Mall; the tree lighting ceremonies in early December kick off a full program of DC Christmas events. Further afield in Maryland and Virginia, there are many fun holiday traditions to experience from Baltimore’s Christmas Village and 34th Street Lights in Hampden to the Battlefield Illumination at Antietam. Updated for 2019!

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Experience the Top Holiday Event in DC – the Lighting of the National Christmas Tree or National Menorah at the White House

Holiday events in DC
National Christmas Tree | Photo by Melissa Moore

Families visiting Washington DC will want to make sure to stop by the Ellipse at the White House to experience one of the best holiday events in DC, the festivities surrounding the National Christmas Tree and National Menorah. Within view of the White House and Washington Monument, there are nightly musical performances, a model train display, and trees representing each of the fifty states for families to enjoy. While always a bit chilly, it’s truly special to see the National Menorah and Christmas Tree lit up at night.

The lighting ceremonies for the National Christmas Tree and the National Menorah are spectacular holiday events in DC which require tickets. Tickets for the National Christmas Tree lighting ceremony are granted by lottery over a month in advance, but tickets for the family-friendly National Menorah Lighting can be reserved online.

The National Christmas Tree is not the only Christmas tree worth seeing in the city during the holiday season. Don’t miss the trees in front of the US Capitol Building and at Union Station. Here’s a list of Family-Friendly Holiday Events in Washington DC within Walking Distance of The National Mall.

Check the best deals on family-friendly hotels in Washington DC.

Walk through a Botanic Garden Illuminated in Lights this Holiday Season

Holiday events in DC holiday lights
Garden of Lights | Photo by Melissa Moore

Like many zoos across the country, the National Zoo puts on a stunning display of lights for the holiday season. ZooLights at the National Zoo is free to walk through. Grab a hot-cocoa or hot apple cider, enjoy a run on the zoo’s snowless tubing hill or take a spin on the carousel for a complete evening of holiday fun. Brookside Gardens in Maryland and Meadowlark Gardens in Virginia also offer intricate light displays for families to walk through during the holiday season.

Alternatively, if your family would rather stay warm in the car listening to Christmas music than wander around outdoors on an icy night, consider driving through a light display at the Bull Run Festival of Lights, Festival of Lights at Watkins Park, or the Winter Lights Festival at Seneca Creek State Park in Gaithersburg.

Slide Down a Giant Slide of Ice at Gaylord National’s ICE! on the Potomac River

holiday events in DC ICE
ICE! at Christmas on the Potomac | Photo by Melissa Moore

Just outside the nation’s capital in Maryland, the Gaylord National Resort hosts one the region’s best holiday extravaganzas, Christmas on the Potomac. While families can spend a full day or even a weekend enjoying the festivities at the resort, the highlight of the event is a walk through the 9 degree Fahrenheit ICE!

Each year this colorful display is carved by artisans from Harbin, China and has a new theme. The theme for 2019 at Gaylord National is Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas. A walk through the  expressive, colorful characters are is a holiday tradition for many families in Washington DC, Maryland, and Virginia. The slides are always a favorite! Typically, they are slick and fast; my children race each other again and again down through the two-story slides. Each year the final room of ICE! features a nativity scene. There’s no color added to this simplistic, peaceful scene, and the intricately carved clear ice reflects in the most beautiful way.

There are various packages available so that families can enjoy all the activities that Christmas on the Potomac has to offer including a tot-sized train ride, the seasonal Glacier Glide Ice Rink, and a gingerbread decorating experience. 

Ice Skate Outdoors at the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden or in Georgetown Overlooking the Potomac River

National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden Ice Rink | Photo by Melissa Moore

There are festive, outdoor ice skating rinks scattered all around the Washington DC metro area. Families visiting the nation’s capital for the holidays should not miss the opportunity to twirl around the ice at The National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden’s Ice Rink. It is directly in front of the impressive National Archives building. Outdoor ice rinks can also be found at Rockville’s Town Square, Silver Spring Veteran’s Plaza, Georgetown’s Washington Harbour, Canal Park, and Pentagon Row.

Watch the Model Trains at the United States Botanic Gardens

Holiday events in DC
Season’s Greetings | Photo by: Melissa Moore

The popular, free Season’s Greetings holiday display at the United States Botanic Garden is another must-see for families. Models of the city’s major landmarks such as the Smithsonian Castle, US Capitol Building, and Washington Monument are constructed out of plant material and displayed in the entrance to the conservatory. There is also a model train for kids to enjoy.  If your little ones just can’t get enough Christmas-themed model railroad fun, Brookside Gardens and Union Station also have annual model railroad exhibits on view for the holiday season.

There’s more transportation-themed fun for the little ones out at the College Park Aviation Museum. Come by the museum for their annual Santa Fly-In the first weekend of December or their model train exhibit brought in by the National Capital Trackers the third week of December. For more family-friendly holiday activities nearby Prince George’s County, check out this list of places to Celebrate the Holidays in Prince George’s County, Maryland.

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Celebrate the Holidays in Washington DC by Experiencing Classic Holiday Favorites with a DC Flavor

holiday events in DC
Nutcracker Ballet | Photo Courtesy of the Washington Ballet (Theo Kossenas)

If your family enjoys ballet, Septime Webre’s all-American version of this classic tale danced by the Washington Ballet at the Warner Theater is a must-see. Appropriately, the Washington Ballet’s Nutcracker story is set in 19th century Georgetown. The dancers portray the usual characters as well as historical figures, such as George Washington. After intermission, it’s not snowflakes that spin round the stage, but cherry blossoms in this unique production with a true local flavor.

The historic Ford’s Theatre is the setting for a classic production of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The actors and actresses at this intimate theater venue tell the classic story of Ebenezer Scrooge on the stage just below where President Lincoln was assassinated 150 years ago. While waiting for the theater to open, take the time to walk through the museum and pay your respects to one of the most respected presidents in US history. 

Sing Along at Wolf Trap’s Holiday Concert

holiday events in DC
Holiday Sing-a-long | Photo Courtesy of Wolf Trap

Wolf Trap’s Holiday Sing-a-long is free and possibly the most remarkable annual holiday concert in the area. Highlights include performances by local choirs and the United States Marine Band. There is even a traditional candlelight processional at the end of the performance. The Washington National Cathedral also holds a Christmas concert especially for families, including a Christmas carol sing-a-long for children. The Kennedy Center also offers many holiday concerts during the month of December. 

Taste the Gingerbread at the Christmas Village and Stroll Along 34th Street in Baltimore

Christmas Village Baltimore |  Photo Courtesy of Christmas Village

Baltimore’s Inner Harbor is converted into a traditional German Christmas Market annually during the winter holidays. This holiday market event features more than fifty vendors, two Christmas trees, and plenty of activities for the children. The Christmas Village is also the perfect place to grab a tasty meal or snack while enjoying other winter activities around Baltimore. The Ice Rink at the Inner Harbor Amphitheater and a 4-D showing of a holiday movie at the National Aquarium are two more items not to be missed.

While you’re in Baltimore, don’t miss checking out some of the city’s best neighborhood light displays.  An entire block of Baltimore’s famous row houses traditionally goes all-out with an impressive display of lights. It is a certainly a must-see for families visiting Baltimore for the holidays. The light display is located on the 700 block of 34th Street between Chestnut Ave and Keswick Rd in Hampden. It is often referred to as “Miracle on 34th Street” due to its location on 34th Street. 

Check for amazing deals on hotels in Baltimore.

Take a Drive out to Antietam National Battlefield

holiday events in DC
Illumination at Antietam | Photo Courtesy of Washington County CVB

On the first Saturday of December every year, 23,110 luminaries are lit at Antietam National Battlefield to signify the soldiers who died, lost or injured in one of the bloodiest one-day battles in American history. While not a traditional holiday event, the Illumination at Antietam occurs during the holiday season every year. This unique event is a great opportunity to take a drive into Maryland to experience some local Civil War history with the family.

For a lighter-spirited event out in Frederick County, consider the Walkersville Southern Railroad’s annual Santa  Train. After the ride, hot chocolate, and cookies are served up back at the train depot.

Check out this list for more unique holiday events in Washington County and Frederick County Maryland.

Celebrate the Holidays with a Stroll Through Historic Downtown Annapolis

Holiday events in DC
Maryland State House | Photo by Melissa Moore

Most families think of visiting Annapolis, known for its sailing and seafood, during the warmer months of the year. However, my family visited Maryland’s capital city in December. We found a charming town decked out with Christmas trees, holiday lights, and festive shop windows.

During the holidays, the Maryland State House has dozens of Christmas trees decorated by each county in Maryland. Yes, only in Maryland will families find Christmas trees decorated with crab and oyster shells in the State House.

Further down Main Street, there are plenty more lights and decorations. For the second year, one of the alleys across the street from the super kid-friendly Chick & Ruth’s Delly has become “Snowflake Alley,” a narrow street decorated with twinkling snowflakes. Just a few blocks away, one of the most beautifully decorated storefronts in the city belongs to the Annapolis Bookstore. Our entire family fell in love with this bookstore. 

Visiting Annapolis in December? Check out this list on Celebrating the Holidays in Annapolis. Planning a weekend getaway to Maryland’s Capital? Here’s An Itinerary for a Family-Friendly Annapolis Weekend Getaway.

Ring in the New Year in Old Town Alexandria

holiday events in DC
Holiday Boat Parade of Lights | Photo Courtesy of Visit Alexandria (R Kennedy)

The beautiful streets of Old Town Alexandria are even more festive during the holiday season. Be sure to check out the annual Holiday Boat Parade of Lights. More than 50 lighted boats cruise the waterfront to the delight of onlookers. On Christmas Eve, watch Santa Claus taking the Potomac on his water skis. Kids love seeing Santa zooming across the water on his skis with his reindeer and Frosty.

holiday events in DC
First Nigh Alexandria | Photo Courtesy of Visit Alexandria (Photo by J Clifford for ACVA)

Old Town Alexandria hosts one of the best family-friendly New Year’s Eve celebrations in the region. Lasting from 2PM till midnight, First Night Alexandria is the largest family-friendly New Year’s Eve party in the region. Finally, at midnight, a fireworks finale rings in the New Year with a colorful display over the Potomac River.

Check for the availability at family-friendly Hotels in Washington DC.

Going to Williamsburg this Christmas season? Check out Trekaroo’s guide to enjoying the Holiday Season in Williamsburg, VA

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Christmas & Holiday ActivitiesFind holiday activities and events in your neck of the woods.  We’ve got the inside scoop on cities across North America.

About the author

Melissa Moore is one of Trekaroo's Travel Experts located in Washington DC. She's a mom to two energetic young children who wake up at the crack of dawn asking, "Where are we going today?" Being a Coast Guard wife gives her a new "hometown” to explore and a cross country road-trip to plan every few years. Recently, she left her native California behind and now has the privilege of introducing her kids to all the history that the Nation's Capital has to offer.

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