12 Days of Christmas: DC Family Fun Bucket List for Winter Break

Enchant DC at Nationals Park
Nationals Park hosts a massive holiday light maze this month at Enchant DC. Photo: Allison Winter

One of my true loves is Washington, DC in the month of December. The holiday lights are aglow, window displays beckon, and there seems to be another new, fun event every weekend.

I don’t want to pack it all up on December 26th, and luckily, I do not have to. DC offers plenty of opportunities for Christmas family fun into January. If you’re staring at the calendar and thinking, “I do not have time to do everything before Christmas,” (and really, who isn’t thinking that at some point?), fear not. Pace yourself. There is plenty of time for fun. With the 12 days of Christmas, you can buy yourself another couple of weeks and have fun adventures in store for winter break from school.

I like to embrace the 12 days of Christmas, which *start* on December 25th and continue through January 5th.

The idea of 12 days of Christmas dates back before the well-known carol. Traditionally, the Christmas season started (yes, started!) on December 25 and lasted until the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6, the day that celebrates the wise men. Some cultures do their major gift-giving day on Epiphany. Really, Dec. 25 should be the start, not the end of the festivities. So keep those party sweaters out. We’re in for a long holiday sleigh ride.

Whether you are celebrating the 12 days of Christmas or just looking for a festive way to pass the days of winter break, we’ve got you covered! Here’s your winter break bucket-list, 12 fun ideas to see you through until January.

Of course, please also check out our Guide to Family-Friendly Events in December, Guide to Light Displays, Christmas Tree Lightings, and where to take photos with Santa

Winter Break Bucket-List: 12 Days of Christmas Fun

1. See city lights aglow. Attend Georgetown Glow, the curated display of 11 art light installations that light the night through January 5th. The lights are spread throughout the Georgetown neighborhood. If you want to see all of them with small children, you’ll need comfortable shoes and a stroller, or a ride between some of them. 

2. Celebrate Boxing Day. The second day of Christmas, Dec. 26, is known as “Boxing Day” and is a public holiday in the United Kingdom.  It can be a day to box up gifts for service employees. When I was a kid, we always gave treats to our postal carrier on Boxing Day. One family I know delivered cookies to their neighborhood fire station in DC on Boxing Day last year. When you are done spreading cheer, take a modern spin on Boxing Day and create some art out of all those delivery boxes from your holiday ordering spree.

3. Have visions of Sugarplums. Clara’s Christmas Eve adventures keep going! The Washington Ballet’s Nutcracker, set amidst cherry blossoms with a leaping George Washington, is at the Warner Theatre through Dec. 29. If your kids are not yet old enough to sit through the whole ballet, try the Puppet Co.‘s marionette production at Glen Echo Park, running through Dec. 29.

4. Don’t burn out on baking cookies. It is always the right time to bake cookies…and more cookies. I like to let my children browse the Washington Post’s cookie ideas for a recipe they are excited about. Full disclosure: my kids are more interested in eating the cookies than in executing the recipe, but they get a little better at helping every year. 

5. Walk in a winter wonderland. Some of my favorite light displays are open through the new year. Check out of Guide to Light Displays hereMeadowlark Garden in Virginia hosts its beautiful Winter Walk of Lights every evening through Sunday, January 5. The National Zoo’s Zoo Lights are on through January 1. Tips: buy tickets in advance for Meadowlark. Consider taking metro to Zoo Lights or arrive early. Zoo Lights parking costs $20 and the lots fill early. Montgomery County Parks has the gorgeous Garden of Lights at Brookside Garden.

6. The lights are on for the federal government.  Remember last December when the federal government was shuttered and they literally turned the lights off on the National Christmas Tree? Well, we may have a new government crisis this December, but it looks like the lights should at least stay on. My family loves to walk around the trees outside the White House. There are great miniature train displays around the big tree, and each state and territory has its own decorations on small trees in the pathway of peace. It is open through Jan. 1. The Capitol Christmas Tree is always stunning. This year it will have handmade ornaments from New Mexico.

7. Decorate a Christmas tree for the birds. Cover a pine cone with birdseed or hang some dried fruit to make an outdoor ornament that can feed the birds (or let’s be honest, the squirrels). Your kids might enjoy sharing the Christmas cheer with wildlife and watching animals enjoy the snacks.

8. Be enchanted. Nationals stadium has been full of magic this year. And Enchant DC took that to the next level with a massive holiday light maze that covers the entire baseball field. Read our guide for details on the spectacular display, open through Dec. 29.

9. Skate through the holiday.  Lace up some ice skates, sing Christmas tunes, and have a fun family outing to one of D.C.’s charming outdoor ice-skating rinks. The ice rink at the National Gallery Sculpture Gardens is particularly picturesque, set amidst sculptures, stately buildings, and encircled by a string of white lights. Check our guide for more information on outdoor skating rinks.

10. Chug along at the Botanic Gardens. The U.S. Botanic Gardens has some of the most magical decorations in the city, a delight for children and adults alike. The Capitol is constructed out of twigs, moss, and acorns and looks like a charming place for a fairy legislature. And there is a whole room devoted to model trains, beautifully chugging across wooden train trestles. Lines can be long to get into the train room during school holidays, so bring some books or games to pass the time. 

11. Make it a colonial Christmas. Take a special Christmas tour at George Washington’s home, Mt. Vernon. Show your children that once upon a time, children were happy to get even one piece of candy as the sum total of their Christmas gifts. You can also visit Aladdin the camel, or see demonstrations of chocolate-making and pie-making. A giant gingerbread Mt. Vernon is on display in the visitor’s center.

12. Throw a 12th Night Party. There’s often a fight for social real-estate those last weekends before Christmas. Bypass that and fill the void in the first weekend of January with a party for the 12th Night of Christmas, Jan. 5th. Twelfth Night was a traditionally a night for revels, and I am on a campaign to bring it back. This year it falls on a Sunday, a lovely time to have one more toast of Christmas cheer and crank up those cozy holiday tunes one more time. William Shakespeare writes in his play “Twelfth Night”: “If music be the food of love, play on.” Play on and on and on!

With whimsical displays and trains galore, the U.S. Botanic Gardens should be top on your holiday bucket list. Photo: Allison Winter
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Ali came to DC “for the summer” in 2000 and has been here ever since. She worked for more than a decade as an environment and energy reporter on Capitol Hill. After her second son was born, she took some time off to chase her children instead of lawmakers. She's now juggling both as a freelance reporter and mom of 2 active sons. Ali lives in NW DC with her husband, sons, and a rotating menagerie of foster animals from the Humane Rescue Alliance. She loves reveling in the awe and wonder of the ordinary with young children as a guide for a Montessori-inspired class at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Foggy Bottom. She also loves to explore DC on the family cargo bike. Likes: Long runs, pour-over coffee, theatre, nature, seasonable weather, and DC’s amazing array of free museums. Dislikes: Mosquitoes, mayonnaise, and change.