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By The Way
Detours with locals. Travel tips you can trust.
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How to spend a secular Christmas in D.C.

What to do on Christmas Day in the D.C. area if you don’t celebrate Christmas

During the holiday season, Shaw's Ivy and Coney transforms from a Chicago and Detroit bar into the Hanukkah-themed “Chai-vy and Cohen-y,” complete with latkes, Manischewitz and nightly Menorah lightings. (Ivy and Coney)
5 min

This is the first installment in By The Way’s secular Christmas series. Read more about New York, Chicago, Houston, Seattle and Los Angeles.

I was never one of those Jewish kids who felt left out on Christmas. We have our own winter holiday, and I squeeze the most out of it — finding joy in hosting an annual latke party that helps me feel connected to my late bubbie. Where others looked at multicolored string lights and glittery trees with pangs of envy, I only saw tacky tinsel and pine leaves about to turn brown.

Although I never felt pulled to participate — not until I discovered glazed ham, anyway — I did always resent how slowly the day would crawl if I was stuck at home with nothing to do but watch the 24-hour marathon of “A Christmas Story.” In the decade I’ve lived in the D.C. area, I’ve come to appreciate how downtown goes still. If you go out on Christmas, it feels as if you have the city to yourself.

In my house, my spouse and I have combined our traditions: my family’s penchant for ordering enough Chinese food to feed a Maccabee army, and her side’s insistence on heading to the movies. This is how we do Christmas Day in D.C.

A local's guide to D.C.

Restaurants open in D.C. on Christmas Day

New Big Wong for Chinese in Chinatown

In the decade-plus we’ve lived in the D.C. area, we’ve visited a range of Chinese restaurants to see which feels worthy of creating a new tradition, such as the upstairs banquet hall of Tony Cheng’s Seafood Restaurant in Chinatown, City Lights of China in Dupont Circle and the Friendship Heights iteration of ultimate mensch Larry La’s venerated Meiwah.

My persistent favorite is New Big Wong, long a late-night haven for D.C. chefs looking to unwind after a shift in a below-ground red dining room full of large circular tables on H Street NW.

We’ll order a mix from my parents’ standing Chinese American order — moo shu pork with extra rice pancakes, General Tso’s chicken, Peking duck — with specials of the house: dry scallop fried rice and wilted snow pea leaf. It’s all worth the queue that crowds the little vestibule and spills up the stairs into Chinatown.

Chang Chang for a modern banquet

For a meal with more dramatic flourishes, you could head to the recently opened Chang Chang in Dupont Circle to sample fried spring rolls stuffed with three types of mushrooms, an elaborate platter of duck four ways or a slice of passion fruit pie from chef-partner Pichet Ong.

Worth the wait: Peter Chang finally opens a Chinese restaurant in D.C.

Duangrat’s for time-tested Thai

Craving special-occasion Thai? Order a whole fried chili basil flounder at Duangrat’s in Falls Church, Va., and you’ll understand why it has stayed open for 35 years.

Ravi Kabob House for fiery chicken

For something less formal, Ravi Kabob House in Arlington, Va., pleases Pakistani expats with outstanding chana (chickpeas), lamb chops and a fiery chicken karahi designed for two.

The 25 best casual restaurants in the D.C. area

Ivy and Coney for Hanukkah kitsch

If you couldn’t tell from the Heileman’s Old Style beer sign hanging out front, Ivy and Coney is a no-frills neighborhood bar that revels in Midwestern kitsch. Every year in Shaw, the Hanukkah specials give Jewish customers a holiday party to rival the annual wave of Christmas pop-up bars. There are latkes as wide as compact discs, a ski-like “shotnorah” that holds eight l’chaims worth of Manischewitz or Malort and sufganiyot-flavored shots that channel jelly doughnuts. On past Christmases, co-owner Josh Saltzman has bought enough Chinese takeout to feed his staff and any lingering customers.

Where to see a movie in D.C. on Christmas Day

Regal Gallery Place in Chinatown

Given my preference for New Big Wong, we usually bookend a meal with a showing at the Regal Gallery Place, attached to Capital One Arena down the street.

Alamo Drafthouse in Brentwood

I’ve also been enjoying the new Alamo Drafthouse by the Rhode Island Avenue/Brentwood Metro station, where a beer might help you stay awake if you’re prone to napping when the lights dim.

The Avalon in Chevy Chase

With a screening history dating to 1923, the Avalon in Chevy Chase has an auditorium that takes you back to the silent film era.

AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, Md.

The American Film Institute’s Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in Silver Spring, Md., is a local treasure I don’t visit enough. On Christmas, it has two afternoon screenings: “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947) and a director’s cut of “The Muppet Christmas Carol.”

Where to go sightseeing in D.C. on Christmas Day

Bike to Constitution Gardens and the Lincoln Memorial

Christmas is the one day a year Smithsonian museums close, so those free exhibits are out. But nothing is stopping you from seeing national monuments without a crowd.

My everyday move is to pick up some wheels from the Capital Bikeshare at 15th and M streets NW, pedal past Lafayette Square and the White House, then race down the hill on 15th Street, hook a right onto the broad sidewalks of Constitution Avenue, pick up the path by the pond in Constitution Gardens and ride that to the Lincoln Memorial.

Ice skating in Georgetown

If you want to keep going west, you could head to the Georgetown waterfront and check out the outdoor ice skating rink in Washington Harbour.

The Kennedy Center for a Christmas jam

Fritz Hahn, a reporter for The Washington Post’s Weekend section, also recommends the annual All-Star Christmas Day Jazz Jam at the Kennedy Center.