Is there a time of year more bound in traditions than the holiday season? Probably not, and that’s fine with us. There are certain things during these festive weeks that Must Be Done, from light displays to shopping and trips to the ice rink and zoo. But even if your agenda is rapidly filling up, perhaps you can still pluck a new holiday favorite from this list.
I don’t believe a house can ever have too many Christmas decorations. I never get sick of Christmas music. And the weeks between Thanksgiving and Dec. 25 never feel like enough time to make all the cookies I want. Call me a Christmas maximalist. So when I married into a family from Baltimore, my husband knew the one place that would delight a holiday-pajama-wearing, kitschy-decoration-loving holiday glutton like me: Baltimore’s Miracle on 34th Street, a street in the Hampden neighborhood that takes holiday lights as seriously as Clark Griswold does.
Traffic around West 34th Street snarls as everyone comes in to gaze at the over-the-top, coordinated light displays, many of which have a Baltimore theme: Christmas Natty Boh or crabs, or light-up pink flamingos, a reference to native son John Waters. Some people get creative, constructing Christmas trees out of hubcaps or filling their lawns with inflatable Santas and snowmen — and shrugging off what I’m sure are costly electricity bills. Grab a mug of hot chocolate and stroll down the block for the most concentrated dose of holiday cheer around. Miracle on 34th Street, 720 West 34th St., Baltimore. Lights are on 5:15 to 11 p.m. nightly through Dec. 31. Free. — Maura Judkis
The “Season’s Greenings” exhibition at the U.S. Botanic Garden is my favorite holiday tradition in Washington, and not just because it’s open on Christmas Day. The model trains chugging around the room remind me of going to see similar displays with my family when I was young, and the rotating themes, from Maryland lighthouses to national parks, make annual visits fresh and interesting. Plus, there’s nothing like wandering into the muggy orchid hothouse on a cold December afternoon. United States Botanic Garden, 100 Maryland Ave. SW. Open daily through Jan. 2. Free. — Fritz Hahn
My husband and I have a long-standing annual ZooLights date, typically paired with dinner somewhere in Cleveland Park. Yes, the light displays at this National Zoo tradition are often the same year to year, but we enjoy revisiting them anyway. Despite the hordes of children, an evening spent under the glow of LED animals is romantic, especially when you have to cuddle for warmth on a frigid December evening. There’s also something that feels vaguely rebellious about roaming the zoo at night. And since it’s free, the price can’t be beat. National Zoo, 3001 Connecticut Ave. NW. 5 to 9 p.m., closed Christmas Eve and Day. Free. — Becky Krystal
It wouldn’t be Christmas at our house without stockings filled with goodies from the quirky little Washington institution, Rodman’s. For several decades, part of my holiday ritual has been a solo expedition to the no-frills Washington location: I fill my basket with chocolate confections and marzipan fruits from Switzerland, Belgium and Latvia; pick out some French milled soaps; search out my family’s favorite German gingerbread cookies and maybe throw in a Hungarian salami to stick at the bottom of a stocking. This little pharmacy turned international food market, which dates to 1955, always has some new tasty surprises. Rodman’s, 5100 Wisconsin Ave. NW. Additional locations in Silver Spring and Kensington. — Jura Koncius
My sons and I love to go ice skating at the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden around the holidays. The scene can’t be beat: I feel like we’re in a Norman Rockwell painting, and we always bump into someone we know. All skill levels are welcome at the rink. It’s easy to hold onto the wall for support, but confidence grows with each lap.
Of course as soon as little toes and fingers get cold, we hit the Pavilion Café for hot chocolate and watch all the skaters twirl, fall, trip and laugh. Skating at the National Gallery reminds me of how lucky we are to live in this city. Also, you can’t beat that Zamboni. If only little boys’ dreams of driving it themselves could come true . . . Ice rink at the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden, Seventh Street and Constitution Ave. NW. Open through March 12; closed Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. $7.50-$8.50; $3 skate rental. — Amy Joyce
A few years ago, I was singing Christmas carols in a senior center and I flubbed the words to “Silent Night.” “Sorry,” I whispered to the woman next to me. “I’m Jewish.” “Me too,” she whispered back.
Since I came out of the closet as a carol-loving Jew, I’ve found that I’m in good company. Perhaps we are just a musical people, or maybe it’s something deeper: After all, some of the best Christmas songs were written at the turn of the century by Jewish Tin Pan Alley songwriters, recent immigrants with Eastern European folk tunes echoing in their ears. It’s probably not a coincidence that the opening bars of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” sound a lot like the Israeli national anthem, “Hatikvah,” not to mention the Yiddish songs my great-grandparents used to sing.
Whatever the reason, I find myself oddly compelled, every December, to gather my friends, pass out Santa hats and march around my neighborhood demanding figgy pudding. If you see us, though, please don’t actually give us figgy pudding. I think we can all agree that stuff is gross. For information about caroling at local senior centers and hospitals, visit the Holiday Project at holidayproject.info/wherewhen. — Sadie Dingfelder
Like many couples without relatives nearby, my wife and I alternate spending Thanksgiving and Christmas with our two families. As her family grew, they adopted an Italian American Christmas Eve tradition: the Feast of the Seven Fishes. Although origin stories vary, the dinner essentially is what it sounds like: a giant meal starring seven different types of seafood. It’s delicious (to everyone except my father-in-law, who dines on ravioli or sausages) and a lot of fun to plan, create and eat.
So the first Christmas we knew we wouldn’t gather with her family, we found a way to enjoy the feast by booking a table at Roberto Donna’s Al Dente in Northwest Washington. A number of restaurants in the region now feature the meal in December, and some, including Bibiana, Centrolina, Equinox and Osteria Morini, serve it only on Christmas Eve. But Al Dente’s menu, featuring gnocchi with porcini mushrooms and bay scallops, seafood ravioli and sautéed branzino, remains one of the best deals in D.C. And while we can’t replicate the family experience, we’ll have our meal prepared by a James Beard Award-winning chef — and I won’t have to wash the dishes. Al Dente, 3201 New Mexico Ave. NW. Feast of the Seven Fishes served through Christmas Eve. $50 a person for seven courses. — John Taylor
Visiting the Garden of Lights at Brookside Gardens has long been a favorite holiday activity of mine — one that began as a family outing when my brother and I were little. Now, my high school friends and I try to go every year as our own reunion of sorts. We pile into a friend’s minivan and drive to Wheaton Regional Park together, catch up as we wander by the light-up displays we remember from childhood (the green dragon slithering up out of the ground is a personal favorite) and take a group photo on the bright white Santa sleigh. Because every good holiday tradition provides ample opportunity for both nostalgia and Instagram. Brookside Gardens, 1800 Glenallan Ave., Wheaton. Open through Jan. 1; closed Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. $25-$30 per car. — Ava Wallace
We don’t participate in Christmas in my house, but we do celebrate it. We grab chopsticks, anoint ourselves with oily string beans and fill a lazy Susan with enough Chinese food to ensure days of leftover noshing. Welcome to Jewish Christmas. Slurping lo mein and painting rice pancakes with hoisin sauce and moo shu pork have become comforting rituals on a holiday ubiquitous to everyone around us.
Because we live many states away from my hometown delivery joint (shout out to Hunan Emperor of Houston), my wife and I have used Christmas to explore a new Chinese restaurant every year. We’ve liked Paul Kee Restaurant in Wheaton (ignore the bare bones decor and order the black pepper short ribs) and City Lights in Dupont Circle (a warm change of pace if you come in from the cold, descend the stairs to the dining room and order a pot of Jasmine tea). Paul Kee Restaurant, 11305 Georgia Ave., Ste. B, Wheaton. City Lights of China, 1731 Connecticut Ave. NW. — Gabe Hiatt
Last year, while covering Miracle on Seventh Street, the Christmas-themed pop-up bar that draws long lines nightly in Shaw, I asked a patron to explain the allure of a bar with choo-choo trains, Santa-shaped mugs of spiked hot cocoa and tinsel dripping from ceiling to trendy concrete floors.
Washingtonians, he’d replied, are far from home by definition, and thus cut off from holiday spirit by extension. I don’t get Christmas, really, but I instinctively understood the guy’s argument. There’s something about a bar at the holidays. For those of us who feel even a twinge of holiday-induced loneliness, a particularly cozy bar is a gathering place for those celebrating a night without work or worry, the ideal reunion spot for far-flung friends who haven’t seen each other in too long. Patrons seem a little bit kinder, staff a little more jovial. As others wrapped last-minute presents at home, I have danced to James Brown at the Black Cat and held a long-distance love tightly at American Ice Company.
This year, the Falafel Frenzy will bring together hundreds of young Jewish Washingtonians at Eighteenth Street Lounge on Christmas Eve, and Miracle on Seventh will keep the holiday lights aglow till the wee hours, too. Wherever I decide to settle in for a hot toddy and nostalgia, I know I won’t feel alone. Falafel Frenzy, Saturday, 9 p.m. Eighteenth Street Lounge, 1212 18th St. NW. $30 in advance; $40 (cash) at the door. Miracle on Seventh Street, 1843 Seventh St. NW. Through Dec. 31, closed Christmas Day. — Lavanya Ramanathan