This is not a definitive list of the region’s events and destinations — that’s an impossible undertaking — and we’ll be featuring far more throughout the season, included in our weekly Things to Do column, published every Thursday on goingoutguide.com, and as part of features both in print and online. But we hope this list inspires you to try something new, or revisit an old favorite, and sparks a feeling of joy. After all, that’s what the holidays are about.
ZooLights returns in person for the first time since 2019, with over 500,000 LED lights that illuminate trees and walkways and form animated animal shapes. Animals will not be on display during ZooLights hours, but there will be musical performances from local groups on most nights (check the zoo’s website for the performance schedule). Entry pass reservations are required this year; they’re released on a rolling basis two weeks, one week, the day before and the day of the event. 5 to 9 p.m., Friday through Sunday between Nov. 25 and Dec. 11, then daily Dec. 16-23 and Dec. 26-30. 3001 Connecticut Ave. NW. Free entry; $30 parking pass.
For most of the year, Darnall’s Chance is a living history museum, showing visitors what life was like for people who lived and worked there in the 19th century. In December, however, the Upper Marlboro house museum takes a modern twist. For more than two decades, it has hosted a gingerbread house contest, inviting cooks of all ages to submit whimsical and completely edible creations. Previous winners have crafted castles, cottages and, last year, a large reproduction of the Globe Theatre. Visit Darnall’s Chance to see dozens of entries, cast a vote in the viewer’s choice competition and explore the historic house. Beyond the gingerbread houses, Darnall’s Chance offers a Hansel & Gretel Tea for kids on Dec. 17, with story time, crafts, and desserts paired with tea or hot chocolate. Noon to 5 p.m., Friday to Sunday through Dec. 11. 14800 Governor Oden Bowie Dr., Upper Marlboro, Md. $2 (cash only); children 4 and younger free.
On most nights, families touring the Symphony of Lights at Merriweather Post Pavilion drive along the one-mile course in their cars, listening to holiday music on the radio while gazing at animated light displays. But on three special nights, visitors can explore the lights on foot. Kids in strollers, wagons and backpacks are welcome at the Festive Families event, which is first on the schedule, with children ages 3 and younger entering the park free. The dog-friendly Tail Lights (Dec. 6) and Lit at the Lights, featuring beer and cocktail tastings (Dec. 8), are next up. 5:30 p.m. 10475 Little Patuxent Pkwy., Columbia, Md. $12; children 3 and younger free.
It seems so retro to go to a mall to search for the perfect present, but you’ll find something far more desirable than chain-store sweaters or gloves right now at Tysons Corner Center. The Creative Collective Pop-Up features gifts from more than 40 local businesses and makers — prints, housewares, ornaments, jewelry — in the spacious former Arhaus Furniture location. Need an excuse to get your four-legged friend out of the house? On Monday nights through Dec. 5, the mall offers pet photos with Santa, no reservations required. Open regular mall hours, through Dec. 24. 1961 Chain Bridge Rd., Tysons, Va. Free.
The Capitol Christmas Tree, a 78-foot red spruce that has been dubbed Ruby, arrived in D.C. after a 13-hour tour from North Carolina’s Pisgah National Forest this month. The tree, lit this year by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and known as the People’s Tree, will be on display from nightfall until 11 p.m. through New Year’s Day. 5 p.m. Nov. 29 through Jan. 1. First Street SE. Free.
Cameron Run’s annual Ice and Lights combines two favorite wintry activities: walking around gazing at holiday lights and lacing up skates and taking to the ice. Spend time wandering through a 100-foot rainbow-hued tunnel, pose for photos at selfie stations and check out the new “interactive stomp lights” before spending an hour gliding on the rink. Warm up with hot chocolate at the snack bar afterward. 5 to 10 p.m., through Jan. 1. 4001 Eisenhower Ave., Alexandria, Va. $8 (lights only); $20 (lights and ice skating).
Things get ugly every Thursday at the Miracle Pop-Up at Death Punch. The long-running holiday-themed pop-up, now in its third year in Adams Morgan, features over-the-top decor, which in 2021 included inflatable Grinches and a forest of tinsel; cocktails in Santa-shaped tiki mugs; and nonstop holiday tunes, drawing a young, ready-to-party crowd. On Thursday nights, the weekly Ugly Sweater Party promises prizes for the most unattractive seasonal knitwear, which should help everyone get in the appropriately festive spirit. Reservations are suggested, but walk-ins are welcome. 9 p.m., Thursdays in December. 2321 18th St. NW. Free.
The Christmas market sponsored by the historic Victorian home of brewer Christian Heurich has grown exponentially in recent years, with more than 40 local makers and artists filling the house museum’s large back garden and stretching down New Hampshire Avenue. Beyond browsing potential gifts, there are ornament-making workshops for kids and an exhibit about the revival of Heurich’s Senate lager — which you can enjoy with a glass of beer in hand. 4 to 8 p.m. Also Dec. 3 from noon to 8 p.m. and Dec. 4 from noon to 6 p.m. 1307 New Hampshire Ave. NW. $2-$20; children younger than 2 free.
Families are welcome at Wolf Trap’s kickoff to the festive season, which features a performance by the United States Marine Band and a holiday song singalong with local choir groups. Bring a candle for the processional during “Silent Night” and a bell for a “Jing-A-Long” during “Jingle Bells.” Wolf Trap will be accepting donations of new toys for Toys for Tots at this first-come, first-seated celebration. 4 p.m. 1551 Trap Rd., Vienna, Va. Free.
Forget ornate concert halls: Washington National Cathedral’s gothic architecture provides a stunning backdrop for performances of Handel’s masterpiece with the cathedral’s chorus and orchestra. Four events take place over three days: A “family edition” on Dec. 3 at noon is an abbreviated version with young music lovers in mind; the Dec. 4 afternoon concert is the only one that will be live-streamed. 4 p.m. Also Dec. 2 at 7 p.m. and Dec. 3 at noon and 4 p.m. 3101 Wisconsin Ave. NW. $20-$108; livestream free, with a pay-what-you-wish option.
From Diwali to Hanukkah to Sweden’s Sankta Lucia, light plays a starring role in seasonal celebrations. This interactive program from the Smithsonian’s Discovery Theater, recommended for children in kindergarten through fifth grade, introduces audiences to holidays around the world. 10:15 and 11:30 a.m., weekdays Dec. 5-20. 1100 Jefferson Dr. SW. $3-$9.
If a night at a National Symphony Orchestra concert summons thoughts of formalwear and expensive tickets, think again: The NSO’s annual Ugly Sweater Concert is a joyous and tacky affair, with both musicians and audience members showing off their “worst” holiday outfits. Festive singalongs and sentimental holiday favorites are featured at this all-seated show. 7:30 p.m. 901 Wharf St. SW. $25-$40.
Duke Ellington enthusiasts have four chances to swing their way into the holiday spirit with his “Nutcracker” — a reimagining of Tchaikovsky’s classic suite, with tunes titled like “Sugar Rum Cherry” instead of “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” — performed by the Eric Felten Jazz Orchestra at Georgetown’s Blues Alley. Tickets will probably sell quickly for this fan favorite, so plan ahead. 7 and 9 p.m., Dec. 6-7. 1073 Wisconsin Ave NW. $40.
Most people commuting along Sunrise Valley Drive through Reston probably don’t realize that one of the seemingly anonymous office parks there is home to the German armed forces command — except in December, when the German military hosts a Christmas market with German food and drink, music, vendors, and activities for children. All proceeds benefit the Friends of Reston and the German Service Relief Association. 4 to 9 p.m. 11150 Sunrise Valley Dr., Reston. $5-$10 (cash only).
The Gay Men’s Chorus holiday show is a performance like no other: There’s singing and tap dancing, rousing choral ensembles, and intimate pieces from soloists, bopping to “Sleigh Ride” and Dolly Parton’s “Hard Candy Christmas.” Each year features different staging and set lists but includes all of the chorus’s ensembles, such as the GenOUT Youth Chorus and 17th Street Dance. 8 p.m. Also Dec. 3 at 3 and 8 p.m. and Dec. 11 at 3 p.m. 1215 U St. NW. $25-$65.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of Annapolis’s favorite holiday tradition: boats covered in holiday light displays sailing around Annapolis Harbor and Spa Creek while crowds watch from docks and the Eastport bridge. Close to 30 boats are registered to participate, with themes including “Jolly Roger Christmas” and “Octoclaus is Coming to Town,” as well as boats celebrating “A Christmas Story” and “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” Arrive early for the best viewing locations. 6 to 8 p.m. Annapolis, Md. Free.
The Washington Ballet’s production of “The Nutcracker,” set in Georgetown and starring George Washington as the heroic titular character, has become a local institution. So, too, have the related events, such as the Nutcracker Tea Party (Dec. 4, sold out) and Family Day. Held before the matinee performance, Family Day includes craft projects, games and photo ops with costumed dancers for the littlest ballet fans. 11:30 a.m.; performance begins at 1 p.m. 513 13th St. NW. $75-$145.
Tuba, euphonium and sousaphone players are used to sitting in the back of an orchestra, but the Kennedy Center brings 150 of them front and center at Merry Tuba Christmas, an annual celebration of low brass power and festive tunes. In its 49th year, this free event, held in the Concert Hall, is also conducted annually in cities around the world. A limited number of advance tickets become available on the Kennedy Center’s website on Nov. 23. However, these reserved tickets must be picked up by 5:45 p.m. on the day of the performance. All other seats are available on a first-come, first-served basis. 6 p.m. 2700 F St. NW. Free.
After a sold-out run of shows at the Atlas Performing Arts Center in 2021, Step Afrika’s Magical Musical Holiday Step Show is moving to Arena Stage’s Fichandler Stage, as part of Arena’s new multiyear partnership with the company. This means even more families will get to see one of the area’s most beloved holiday productions, which features elves and nutcrackers stepping and stomping their way across the stage to the beat of drums, stamping feet and, in one memorable performance, scraping snow shovels. Without giving too much away, kids might want to wear their dancing shoes. 7:30 p.m. Also at various times Dec. 9-18. 1101 Sixth St. SW. $56-$95.
Unlike other adaptations, Ford’s Theatre’s version of “A Christmas Carol” is infused with music, and actor Craig Wallace returns as crotchety Ebenezer Scrooge. This Washington holiday staple started 41 years ago and is recommended for audience members age 5 and up. 7:30 p.m. Also at various times Nov. 18 through Dec. 23. 511 10th St. NW. $26-$132.
Tudor Place, built in 1805 and designed by William Thornton, the architect of the U.S. Capitol, remained in the same family for more than two centuries. The focus of this year’s tour is 1880, so visitors can learn how the people who lived and worked at Tudor Place at that time would have celebrated, take a guided tour, then make a holiday craft and sample refreshments from the Victorian era. 6 and 6:30 p.m., Dec. 6, 8, 13 and 15. 1644 31st St. NW. $25.
George Washington’s estate is aglow with lantern-lit festive decorations, and around 8 p.m., a fireworks display is set off, choreographed to Christmas music. A market features 18th-century crafts, and an encampment includes a working blacksmith, Christmas carolers and a camel named Aladdin. 5:30 p.m., Dec. 16-17 (mansion tour is sold out on Dec. 17). 3200 Mount Vernon Memorial Hwy., Mount Vernon, Va. $26-$60.
The Dance Institute of Washington has been at the forefront of diversifying ballet in D.C., training and supporting the next generation of “preprofessional” dancers. This year’s production, “Celebrating Life and Harmony,” uses dance, spoken word and music “to portray the struggles and creativity within the Black experience.” 7 p.m., Dec. 16-17. 2455 Sixth St. NW. $15-$30.
The lighting of the National Menorah returns to the Ellipse on the first night of Hanukkah. Attended in past years by the president, vice president (including Joe Biden in 2014), and members of the Cabinet and Congress, this festive celebration includes performances by military bands and Jewish artists. 3:15-5:45 p.m. 1700 E St NW. Free; reservation required.
As Hanukkah begins, a group of organizations for Jews in their 20s and 30s, including the DCJCC’s EntryPointDC, are joining forces for a party at Franklin Hall. Take Israeli dance lessons, sample spicy olive oil and hot sauces, sip Hanukkah-themed cocktails, or spin a dreidel. Guests are asked to bring winter socks or gloves for a clothing drive. 5:30 to 9 p.m. 1348 Florida Ave. NW. $5.
With the U.S. Botanic Garden closed to the public last winter, the wildly popular model train exhibit moved to the outdoor gardens, where locomotives, including Thomas the Tank Engine, chugged past elaborate reproductions of agricultural scenes, with all structures made from plant materials. While the buildings have reopened, the Botanic Garden will keep the trains alfresco for another season. Meanwhile, the annual display of poinsettias and famous D.C. landmarks constructed with gourds, corn husks, bark and other natural materials has moved back to its usual place inside to the Conservatory. On Tuesday nights in December, both indoor and outdoor areas are open until 8 p.m. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Nov. 24 through Jan. 2 (closed Christmas Day). 100 Maryland Ave. SW. Free.
One of pop culture’s most unlikely Christmas success stories is “A John Waters Christmas,” the famed director’s annual one-man show that finds the Pope of Trash discussing novelty tunes, holiday exploitation movies, terrible holiday cards and the worst presents you can give (or get), in his quick-witted, rapid-fire and occasionally over-the-top manner. Even if you don’t love Waters’s entire oeuvre, this is a holiday show worth seeing. 7:30 p.m. 3701 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria, Va. $59.50.
There are many versions of “The Nutcracker” at this time of year, and “The Hip Hop Nutcracker,” returning to Strathmore again this year, includes the familiar melodies and leitmotifs from Tchaikovsky’s score. But it also features a modern urban setting and a crew of street-style dancers who windmill, helicopter and flip their way across the stage while a DJ and violinist remix the music into something that feels remarkably fresh. MC Kurtis Blow — creator of the groundbreaking “Christmas Rappin’ ” — is the host and opening act. 8 p.m., Dec. 19-22. 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda, Md. $34-$68.
One of the season’s most boisterous — well, boisterous and joyful — events is the Kennedy Center’s “Messiah” singalong evening, which finds members of the Washington National Opera Orchestra; guest soloists; and a 150-strong chorus with members of the Congressional Chorus, the Northern Virginia Chorale and other local singing groups performing a free concert in the Opera House. A limited number of advance tickets become available through the Kennedy Center’s website on Nov. 30; as with Merry Tuba Christmas (see Dec. 12), these tickets must be picked up by 5:45 p.m. on the day of the performance. All other seats are available on a first-come, first-served basis. 6 p.m. 2700 F St. NW. Free.
After operating as a drive-through in 2020 and taking 2021 off, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints temple in Kensington is welcoming visitors back to its Festival of Lights. More than 400,000 lights decorate the grounds, the church says, and displays include 84 crèches from around the world. Live entertainment is featured each night, with performers ranging from big bands to Beijing Opera to bell ringers. On Christmas Eve, an early (4 p.m.) performance includes dances from Pacific islands such as Samoa, Tonga and New Zealand. Dusk to 9 p.m., Dec. 1 through Jan. 2. 9900 Stoneybrook Dr., Kensington, Md. Free.
On a day when much of Washington comes to a halt — Smithsonian museums closed, clubs and theaters dark — the Kennedy Center offers entertainment to perk up the evening. Since the late ’90s, the performing arts citadel has offered a Christmas Day Jazz Jam, once hosted by legendary bassist Keter Betts and now led by brothers Chuck (vibraphone) and Robert (piano) Redd. Join the Redds and a team of musicians, including vocalist Lori Williams, for a free evening of seasonal favorites and chestnuts on the Millennium Stage. The concert will also be live-streamed, if you’d rather watch from home after dinner instead of making the trek to Foggy Bottom. 6 p.m. 2700 F St. NW. kennedy-center.org. Free; a limited number of advance tickets will be available on Dec. 7.