Washington, D.C., shines brightest when Santa comes to town.
To me, this is the most wonderful time of the year in our Nation's Capital. I love the cherry blossoms in the spring, and the district's star-spangled Fourth of July celebration has no equal. But there's something utterly unexpected about Washington during the holiday season. It crackles with energy and excitement. Nowhere is that more evident than at the Willard InterContinental Washington, a hotel close to the White House and the Ellipse where the National Christmas Tree stands.
As I step inside the Willard's opulent lobby seeking refuge from the cold night, I stop to stare at the unfolding scene. A
tall evergreen surrounded by brightly wrapped packages shimmers in the soft golden light. Visitors from around the world,
swaddled in colorful scarves and mittens, pause to listen as carolers sing of a silent night long ago. Attendants pass cups
of steaming cider spiked with cinnamon sticks to all who enter. It's a Christmas card come to life.
The Willard sees thousands of visitors during the holidays each year. Indeed, a stop at this grand historic hotel has become part of the tradition for residents and visitors alike who come to see D.C. adorned in the season's finery.
left: Let your sense of humor show, suggests Senior Photographer Van Chaplin.
The holiday season officially begins December 7, when the President lights the 40-foot-tall Colorado spruce during the annual
Pageant of Peace concert and tree-lighting ceremony. The National Park Service gives away a limited number of tickets, but
the tree stays lit throughout the season. Local music groups perform each evening from 6 to 8:30 p.m. through the end of December,
left: General Electric designs the lights for the National Christmas Tree.
But this is just one in a sea of wonderful events designed to celebrate the season. Longtime Washingtonians consider A Christmas Carol at Ford's Theatre a long-standing tradition. No matter how many times you've seen it, you'll cheer aloud when Scrooge abandons
his miserly ways, causing Tiny Tim to declare: "God bless us, every one."
No holiday celebration is complete without a performance of The Nutcracker. The Washington Ballet's version is set in Victorian-era Georgetown, giving the tale a uniquely American twist. This production runs December 7-23 at the Warner Theatre. For a truly modern take on the classic, catch the Momentum Dance Theatre's Jazz Hip-Hop Nutcracker on the weekends of December 9 and 16.
left: Choir performances at the Kennedy Center set the tone for the holidays.
A visit to Washington also provides a chance to finish your gift-buying. You can save a bundle, too, if you shop during the
sales tax holiday, November 24 through December 3, when the local government waives collections on clothing, shoes, and accessories
priced at $100 or less.
For distinctively D.C. gift ideas, visit the shops at the many museums. The Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian boasts two shops, with gifts ranging from Pendleton wool blankets to exquisite handmade turquoise jewelry. At the International Spy Museum, you'll find loads of gadgets for your resident sleuth, while the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery features Joto kimono purses, Ikibana bonsai shears, and Cambodian silks.
With its marble floors and barrel-vaulted ceilings laced with 22-karat gold leaf, Union Station ranks among Washington's finest
architectural gems. But the working train station also houses souvenir shops and specialty boutiques, as well as chains such
as Ann Taylor, Chico's, and Jos. A. Bank. The Royal Norwegian Embassy hosts an annual Christmas bazaar and provides the model
train display and a magnificent 30-foot-tall Christmas tree.
Head next to beautiful Georgetown, where exclusive boutiques, antiques stores, and furniture showrooms line the cobblestone streets. More than 500 businesses are located within a five-block radius of the intersection of M Street NW. and Wisconsin Avenue. Serious shoppers also make the trek to Tysons Corner, Virginia, 14 miles west of downtown. The area's three shopping mallsTysons Corner Center, Tysons Galleria, and Shops at Fairfax Squarecontain more than 400 stores.
D.C. boasts enough attractions and events to keep you busy for days, but no place captures the holiday spirit like the Washington
National Cathedral. The second largest in the United States, the impressive Gothic-style church welcomes visitors of all faiths
to attend a service or simply tour the building. But don't expect the cathedral to be fully decked out until Christmas Eve.
Members of the Flower Guild plan months in advance to produce the massive Christmas displays that grace the altars, pulpit, and lectern. They use mounds of amaryllis, dried hydrangeas, roses, kissing balls, wreaths, fruit, and greenery of every description, as well as more than 500 pots of poinsettias to deck the halls. Every single leaf is natural.
For a complete list of holiday events, contact the Washington, DC Convention and Tourism Corporation, 901 Seventh Street NW., Fourth Floor, Washington, DC 20001; www.washington.org or (202) 789-7000.