As temperatures crept toward 70 degrees on Christmas morning, James McPherson stood on the balcony of his family’s Southeast Washington apartment wearing shorts and no shirt.
“Feels great,” the 15-year-old said, his smile suggesting someone who was being tickled by a thousand feathers.
On the sidewalk below, Lakisha Webster’s eyes narrowed as she struggled to make sense of the forces that may have conspired to turn what she once knew as winter into the strangest of summers.
“Jesus might be coming back,” Webster, 44, said, while her young grandson test-drove a new $800 dirt bike. “Or it’s something else. I don’t know. But it’s scary — a little bit scary.”
Even as Washingtonians found themselves luxuriating in the steam bath that was Christmas 2015, even as decades of meteorological records were shattered, they could not help but feel out of sorts, as if they were indulging in something that was not quite right.
By early afternoon, the temperature had vaulted to 69 degrees at Reagan National Airport, the highest Christmas reading in more than 30 years, and far warmer than the customary high of 44 degrees.
If the ever-toastier conditions caused a deep sense of unease as presents were ripped open and feasts were digested, there was also a measure of delight in tossing aside winter coats, jumping on bikes and jogging shirtless toward the U.S. Capitol.
“Wonderful,” said Richard Strange, 74, his bare shoulders and torso glistening with sweat as he paused while running along the Mall.
On his sneaker laces were small, jingling bells. Atop his head was a red Santa hat.
“This is wrong,” Strange said of the weather, valiantly struggling to convince himself. “Winter should be cold. Summer should be warm.”
He surrendered to the pleasure of warmth: “The occasional exception is welcome in its eccentric way.”
Rich Langenfeld, 62, was not nearly so welcoming, having traveled with his wife, Patti, from Southern California to Washington in anticipation of a frosty East Coast Christmas.
“No snow! We’ve been screwed!” Langenfeld said as the couple stood along the banks of the Potomac River near the Lincoln Memorial, photographing a ribbon of milky white fog that had settled on the water.
Where they live, Langenfeld said, checking the weather app on his smartphone, the temperature was 48 degrees — nearly 20 degrees cooler than in the District at that moment.
“Back home, we normally sit in the hot tub on Christmas,” he said.
“This is like a hot tub — without the hot tub,” his wife pointed out, her coat draped over her arm.
The rising temperatures challenged the whole notion of winter’s centerpiece holiday, particularly as it is known on the East Coast, a rite that has inspired movies such as Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye’s “White Christmas.”
Is Frosty the Snowman a vestige of Christmases past, destined to becoming something that people know only from YouTube or a museum? Can Christmas be Christmas in weather more appropriate for a bathing suit than a Santa suit?
Sure it can, said Antonio Arnett, 54, who was standing in front of the building where young James was basking shirtless on his balcony, near the corner of 12th Street and Potomac Avenue SE.
“You just change the meal a little,” Arnett said. Instead of mashed potatoes and ham, he said, his family would stick to turkey and make more salads.
“No eggnog, no hot chocolate,” said Antavous Freeman, 35, standing nearby. “The north moved south. We’re in the south right now. We’re being bamboozled. It’s a flip of the coin — you don’t know what’s going to happen: snow, rain, cold — I think the weather is sick. ”
Sure enough, after a summerlike morning, the city was awash in rainfall by 1 p.m., a downpour that ended quickly — then began again.
In truth, snow has not been a Christmas staple in the nation’s capital for decades. John F. Kennedy was president the last time Washington got more than five inches on Dec. 25.
Carol Blum, a retired policy analyst, sat at an outdoor table outside a Starbucks in Adams Morgan at 8:30 a.m., dressed in knee-length capris as she contemplated a season that can be described only as winter light.
“End times must be on the way,” she said, her smile suggesting no concern. “I’m delighted with this. I have enough problems that I will die before the end happens.”
A couple of miles away, Jon Harris, 24, paused as he reached the entrance to the National World War II Memorial. He wore a T-shirt, shorts and no socks, and he acknowledged feeling a bit anxious as he considered the ecological future.
“This feels like nature’s version of a payday loan,” he said. “It’s nice, but it will bite us later. Nature has a way of balancing itself out.”