Holiday Door Decorating Contest in Old Town Alexandria

By Kathleen Hom
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Old Town Alexandria front-door contest has been held for at least the past 35 Decembers. Yet it still manages to be one of the biggest secrets in town.

The competition is loosely organized and judged by members of the Old Town Walled Garden Club, a 50-year-old social and gardening group. Here are the basic rules, according to Co-President Betty Spar: Only natural materials are allowed; no artificial decorations, including lights, are permitted except ribbon; professional florists can't win; and people must make their own decorations. Most of all: There is no official entry form. Residents decorate their front doors and hope the judges notice.

This year's judging is Dec. 14. Three judges will be driven down every street in Old Town, spending three to four hours analyzing countless front doors for a stretch of 40 miles. Though the club has about 120 members, "it's actually very hard to find judges willing to give up four hours" to study decorations, Spar says.

Some contestants have an even more labor- and time-intensive job when it comes to decorating. "It's hilarious," says Margaret Hodges, who was a judge several years ago. "Some people take it really seriously, planning weeks ahead, laying out fruit to dry." The contest is not just about wreaths, said Lynn Neihardt, who has been a volunteer judge. Swags and window box dressings can also be decorated.

Last year's first-place winner, Tina Lamoreaux, has decorated her door for the contest the past 12 years. Her first-prize wreath was brimming with kumquats, clementines and dried orange slices, which had to be dried in the oven. Her door also had a garland with cedar, boxwood branches and a strand of kumquats. The construction takes a lot of planning, Lamoreaux says, because you have to think of the door opening and closing and how heavy the materials are. Squirrels and birds can feast on your seeds and fruit, too.

On the other hand, Susanne and Robert Adams came in second place last year and constructed a wreath in an hour and a half for $3. Susanne Adams says they were traveling during the holidays but that Old Town is a neighborhood where "everybody on the street really decked out their houses. . . . I didn't want [our door] to be so bare." So she and her husband dug up a straw wreath form from the basement and adorned it with hawthorn berries, magnolia leaves and boxwood cuttings from their back yard.

No matter how much time is invested in decorating, the judging is simple. The three judges study doors from the car, stepping outside if something catches their eyes for further inspection, sometimes taking digital photos. They don't have a point system or any categories to check off, but merely pick their favorites and hash it out with one another.

The three reach a consensus in a couple of days, if not sooner, so the winners can be announced in the Alexandria Gazette Packet newspaper Dec. 18. One of the judges visits the winner and drops off a copy of the newspaper and the prize, which is often a gift certificate donated by a neighborhood restaurant. At this point, "some people are proud to have won, and some don't know what you're talking about," says Tom Dimond, former president of the club.

This is one holiday contest where motorized Rudolphs, inflatable Nativity scenes and lights that rival the sun won't cut it. First-time judge Sarah Becker says walking around Old Town and viewing these traditional decorations is a welcome "contrast to the home in which the yard is entirely lit up."

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