A Capital Christmas

Want to experience winter festivities in Washington and not break the bank? We've got some ideas.

Have yourself a capital Christmas

No need to break into the Treasury to join the festivities

$500 Getaway


There are scores of travel brochures and Web sites that list things to do in Washington for the holidays. What's striking about most, however, is that they include as many attractions in the suburbs as those within the city limits.

That seems a bit odd, considering how long it takes to navigate through gridlock around the nation's capital. Nothing against scenic light displays in Wheaton or a gingerbread house in Arlington, Va., but a holiday in Washington should be just that, even if you're just coming from the Baltimore area.

That's the mindset my 9-year-old daughter, Nyaniso, and I had when we set out for a father-daughter holiday weekend in D.C. with all the trimmings, including two nights at a downtown hotel.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in today's Travel section about Washington includes information about seeing the Washington Ballet's production of The Nutcracker. The ballet company has gone on strike since the section was printed, and performances have been canceled.
The Sun regrets the errors.

Our plan was to see many of the sites that make Washington sparkle for the holidays. At the top of our list was historic Warner Theatre, where we would see the nationally renowned Washington Ballet perform the timeless classic, The Nutcracker.

I soon discovered that to take in everything we had planned, I probably needed a safecracker.

There's a big difference between the holiday sites in the district and those on the outskirts: Everything's more expensive in D.C.

For example, tickets to see the little-known Alexandria Ballet perform The Nutcracker at the town's Athenaeum (about 20 minutes outside D.C.) are $15. The cost to see the Washington Ballet at the Warner is $29-$77.

Ditto for a performance that was second on our list: A Christmas Carol at Ford's Theatre, where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.

At most other area venues, you could see the classic Dickens play for the cost of a DVD. But the Ford's Theatre performance costs $30-$50.

So what do you do if you're a prudent spender eager to immerse yourself in Washington's holiday traditions without drowning in credit-card debt?

By the time I got online for tickets, Christmas Carol at Ford's Theatre show was sold out, and only $77 tickets remained for The Nutcracker.

We had our sights set on at least one of the shows, but we also had a budget of $500. The hotel -- the Wyndham Washington -- alone was $231 for two nights.

So I came up with an idea that was both thrifty and fun: Channeling all our event funds toward one show, then seeing how many other attractions we could take in free of charge.

In D.C., that's easy. The district offers many attractions that are free. And if you're willing to take a leisurely stroll in one of the country's best walking cities, you'll save on mass transit, too.

Botanic Garden

For starters, there's the holiday exhibit at the U.S. Botanic Garden.

The conservatory's Garden Court is annually transformed into a flowery replica of the National Mall. Dominating the exhibit are poinsettias, and with their bold-red petals and emerald-colored leaves, they put you in the holiday spirit.

Accompanying the poinsettias are Joseph's coats, a flower with long, diamond-shaped red and yellow petals, and the plump, heart-shaped Sierra whites. The flowers not only combine for an opulent display but also give off a sweet aroma that hits you as soon as you enter the court.

Along with the flowers are National Mall miniature replicas that include the Capitol, Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial. All the miniatures are made of natural plant materials: The Capitol dome, for example, is made of sycamore leaves, willow, sea grass twine, wheat, fern leaves, acorns, pods and acorn caps.

A model train that chugs along on overhead tracks and occasionally blows its whistle surrounds the exhibit (Model trains are big in Washington this time of year).

Another great free venue is the Christmas Pageant of Peace, the elaborate exhibit that's centered on the National Christmas Tree on the Ellipse, near the White House.

It's best to visit the Pageant of Peace after dark. During the day, the tree -- a 40-foot Colorado spruce -- is, well, just a big tree with a bunch of unlit bulbs. At night, however, the tree is something to behold, with its glowing off-white miniature lights and snow-white stars.

But there's much more to the exhibit than the big tree. For some, the Pathway of Peace is more popular. It consists of small trees from all U.S. states, territories and the District of Columbia that are decorated in tree ornaments that symbolize each place's history, heritage and culture. Each night, locals and out-of-towners scour the pathway in search of their state tree.

My daughter, who was born in the Boston area, delighted when she found the Massachusetts tree, which was decorated with clear, round bulbs that encased two of the Bay State's well-known items: sea shells and cranberries.

I, meanwhile, staked out the trees of the two states I grew up in: New Jersey (decorated with papier-mache ornaments) and South Carolina (decorated with white doves).

The Pageant of Peace also features a nativity scene, a model train exhibit and nightly concert performances.

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