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Celebrate the Season in Washington, D.C.: Free & Cheap Holiday Fun for Families

DC/MD/VA Holidays Things to Do

The holidays are a magical time in our nation's capital with many special seasonal events, light festivals and activities set against the backdrop of the landmarks of this historic city.

While this year will be a bit different, there's still plenty of safe family Christmas and holiday fun to be had in Washington, D.C. this year (including some favorites that have gone virtual). We've rounded up a list of some of our favorite free and affordable options for 2020.

Celebrate Diwali With the Asian Art Museum - FREE (Online)

Diwali is India's most important holiday of the year, celebrated by millions of Hindus, Sikhs and Jains across the world. Known as the "Festival of Lights," Diwali is celebrated on the 15th day of the Hindu month of Kartik and symbolizes the spiritual victory of good triumphing over evil and light conquering darkness. Come celebrate Diwali (online) with a free family workshop from the National Museum of Asian Art on Saturday, November 14th from 11:30 a.m. - 12:30 p.m.  Led by dancer Anila Kumari and artists from the Sutradhar Institute of Dance & Related Arts, the workshop will include an interactive workshop on dance and hand gestures, story time, and a special lamp lighting ceremony. Register HERE.

The National Christmas Tree and Menorah – FREE

The Ellipse near the White House is the scene of one of Washington, D.C.’s most beloved holiday traditions, and required pilgrimage for our family every December. The National Christmas Tree and surrounding Pathway of Peace, featuring 56 state and territory trees with handmade ornaments, light up from dusk to 10 p.m. each night. The 98th tree lighting ceremony will take place virtually this year on December 3rd due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. You can watch the live stream on https://thenationaltree.org/. Visit the National Park Service website for more information. Located nearby is the National Menorah – the world’s largest! The National Menorah lighting ceremony will take place this year on Thursday, December 10th at 4 p.m. with a limited audience. Tickets are required and can be reserved here starting November 16th.

U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree – FREE

Each year, a different national forest has the distinction of supplying the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree, which stands majestically on the West Lawn of the Capitol Grounds during the holiday season. This year's tree was cut down on November 5th in Colorado's Uncompahgre National Forest and will arrive at the Capitol Building on November 20th. The tree is traditionally lit by the Speaker of the House; however, no details have yet been provided on this year's lighting ceremony. The majestic backdrop of the Capitol Building always makes for a great photo op.

U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree

Christmas Light Spectacular at Museum of the Bible - Save 40% Off

Museum of the Bible is celebrating Christmas in its Grand Hall with a one-of-a-kind retelling of the Christmas story featuring intricate light sculptures, digital displays, music and live performers. The most wonderful time of the year kicks off at Museum of the Bible on November 15th, and is brought to you by the very same New York-based creative team who brings the Macy's windows to life every year. Christmas Light Spectacular is included with regular admission.

Celebrate Kwanzaa with the Anacostia Community Museum - FREE (Online)

The ACM's annual Kwanzaa celebration will take place virtually this year on December 10th from 2:30 - 3:15 p.m. Kwanzaa is a seven-day festival that celebrates African and African American culture and history. Learn the seven principles of Kwanzaa and create a hands-on craft with Brian Barber, an educator, rapper, and author born and raised in the Washington, D.C. area in Fort Washington, Maryland. Click HERE to register for this free webinar. And be sure to check out the events page for a list of supplies you will need for the craft.

Downtown Holiday Market – FREE Admission

Located on the F Street sidewalk in front of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery, the Downtown Holiday Market kicks off its 16th year on November 20, 2020. This unique outdoor seasonal shopping and dining experience brings together more than 75 regional artisans, crafters, boutique businesses and specialty food vendors to the heart of downtown Washington, D.C. This year's lineup will include Black-owned and minority-owned businesses from the DC Department of Small and Local Business Development's (DSLBD) Made in DC program, and enhanced COVID-19 safety protocols - including contactless and convenient payment methods for purchases - will be in place. Shop for gift items for everyone on your list while getting in the holiday spirit! The Downtown Holiday Market is open November 20 - December 23 from Noon – 8 p.m. daily.

Downtown Holiday Market Washington, D.C.
Photo Courtesy of Downtown Holiday Market

Victura Park Holiday Market at the Kennedy Center REACH - FREE Admission 

The Kennedy Center's family-friendly outdoor wine wine and beer garden at the REACH is your weekend destination for holiday shopping and fun starting Black Friday, November 27th through December 20th. Victura Park will be transformed into a festive holiday market with an amazing line up of local artists, craftspersons, and other specialized vendors selling gifts, foods and one-of-kind artworks. Take in a scenic view of the Potomac and the majestic Kennedy Center while supporting local small businesses and enjoying light snacks, grilled hot food, beer, wine and seasonal favorites like spike cider and hot chocolate. Space heaters will be placed throughout the park for your comfort!

Get in the Holiday Spirit at National Harbor – FREE

One of the newer venues in the D.C. area, National Harbor has quickly become an annual holiday destination for many area families. Get your holiday shopping done while strolling the waterfront boutiques, grab a bite at one of the many delicious restaurants, and check out the jaw-dropping holiday decorations at Gaylord National Resort. Starting November 14th through January 3rd, get in the holiday spirit with the nightly lighting of National Harbor's 56-foot tree - taking place every half hour from sundown to 9 p.m. - and two million twinkling lights adorning the Waterfront District. There will even be snowfall over the tree during the light show!

The Capital Wheel at National Harbor Christmas Tree

The Nutcracker - 20% Off Virtual Performance

For many of us, the holidays are not complete without attending a performance of this beloved ballet that’s as much fun for adults as it is for the kids. Unfortunately, this year, in-person performances of The Nutcracker will be hard to come by due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The good news is that one of our favorites has gone virtual this year, making it more accessible than ever for everyone to view -- right from your living room couch! The Moscow Ballet's Great Russian Nutcracker: Christmas Stream debuts at 8 p.m. on December 19th and the content will remain available to view until January 1, 2021 at 11:59 p.m. Bonus features include a live Zoom meet and greet with world-class artists, designers, and ceators of this cherished production as well as the opportunity to purchase keepsakes like nutcracker dolls and ornaments.

Lighting of the Menorah at The District Wharf - FREE

The celebration of the Festival of Lights kicks off this year on December 10th with the annual tradition of lighting the menorah in District Square. Come to The Wharf each night from Thursday, December 10th through Friday, December 18th to see the menorah progressively illuminated. 

Wolf Trap Holiday Sing-A-Long From Home - FREE

This beloved annual holiday tradition has gone virtual this year with a festive instrumental performance by "The President's Own" United States Marine Band (USMB) and a sing-a-long of traditional holiday carols led by more than 500 local singers. There will be two different (pre-recorded) virtual performances this year on December 5th and 19th at 4 p.m. Gather safely with family, grab some hot cocoa and cookies, and settle in for a festive afternoon of holiday fun.

Holiday Activities at Mount Vernon - Free With Admission

Celebrate the season at one of the most beautiful spots on the Potomac River, George Washington's Mount Vernon. Christmas at Mount Vernon takes place from November 27 - December 31 daily - including Christmas Eve and Christmas Day - and special family-friendly holiday programs, tours and activities are included free with admission. Mount Vernon is located just 15 miles from Washington, D.C. across the Potomac River and is open 365 days a year.

Light Festivals in the D.C. Suburbs - Save up to 40% Off

The nearby D.C. suburbs in Maryland and Virginia are home to many dazzling light displays. Here are a few of our favorites with links to deals that will save you up to 40% off admission.

Meadowlark Gardens Winter Walk of Lights Vienna, VA
Meadowlark Gardens Winter Walk of Lights Photo by: Kim Humphrey

Meadowlark Gardens Winter Walk of Lights in Vienna, VA: Walk through more than a half mile of paved trail adorned with lighted trees, nature displays and holiday themes. Some of my daughter’s favorites include the jumping fish, butterfly garden, and Lakeside Lights - an animated light show with over 40,000 lights set to music.

Ice & Lights at Cameron Run in Alexandria, VA: For its second year, Cameron Run Regional Park is transformed into a full-fledged winter village, featuring a real ice rink, beautifully lit trees and displays, fire pits and heated igloos, and yummy food to enjoy. Ice & Lights runs nightly November 20, 2020 - January 3, 2021. The ice rink will continue operations through the end of February. 

Bull Run Festival of Lights in Centreville, VA: For 17 years, the Bull Run Festival of Lights at Bull Run Regional Park has drawn thousands of visitors from hundreds of miles away to Centreville, Virginia, just outside D.C. After enjoying two and a half miles of light displays, don’t forget to stop at the Holiday Village to walk through an area full of lights and photo ops - plus camel rides!

Lights on the Bay at Sandy Point Park in Annapolis, MD: Enjoy the magic this season and treat the family to the 27th annual holiday light show, sponsored by the SPCA of Anne Arundel County. A tradition for many area families, Lights on the Bay is a scenic two-mile drive along the shore of the Chesapeake Bay with more than 70 spectacular animated and stationary displays illuminating the roadway. This year's theme: North Pole Adventure. 

Alexandria Waterskiing Santa – FREE

Since 1986, every Christmas Eve, Santa, his band of Crazy Elves, and the jet skiing Grinch take to the water along the historic Old Town Alexandria waterfront and ski from Founders to Waterfront Park. Unfortunately, this year, due to COVID-19, the event will not be live. However, the tradition will still continue! Santa and his merry crew will film their crazy practices and air them on Sunday, December 20th for all to enjoy. Click HERE for more information.

Alexandria Waterskiing Santa
Photo Credit: Waterskiing Santa

Family Christmas Service at Washington National Cathedral – FREE

The site of many significant national events and services, including presidential inaugurations, funerals and memorials, the Washington National Cathedral is a special place to celebrate the season for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Due to COVID-19, Christmas at the Cathedral will look different this year - all services will be online. The good news is their special Family Christmas Eve Service will still take place with the beloved tradition of the Nativity Story told with live animals continued!  

Celebrate Kwanzaa with the National Museum of African American History and Culture - FREE 

NMAAHC is launching a brand new online resource on December 26th to guide families through Kwanzaa. Through interactive content, projects and activities, guests will learn about the holiday's origins, seven principles, and African American celebration traditions. Content will include sing-alongs, coloring pages, book recommendations, recipes for the celebration feast Karamu Ya Imani and more. The webpage will be available here: https://nmaahc.si.edu/kwanzaa

S'Mores by the Fire at The Ritz Carlton Georgetown – FREE

Escape the M Street shopping crowds and the cold temps and warm up and relax by the fire at The Ritz Carlton Georgetown. Located at 3100 South Street, N.W., The Ritz Carlton Georgetown offers complimentary Fireside S'mores every evening from 5:30 - 6:30 p.m. in front of their wood-burning fireplace in the Living Room. On Saturdays and Sundays, they kick the chocolatey-fun up a notch by adding in a free artisan hot cocoa bar, complete with gourmet toppings and complimentary seasonal candies and treats. Consider staying overnight with the family and booking the "Deck the Halls" package where you have the option of having your one-bedroom suite already decked out with a pre-decorated tree or "decking the halls" yourselves with tree, lights, ornaments, and décor provided in your suite. This is definitely not free, but a worthwhile family holiday indulgence.


Check out our Simple, Sanity-Saving Elf on the Shelf Ideas for more holiday fun.


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