Sunday, December 18, 2005

Christmastime in Washington

A couple of weeks ago, I decided it would fun to take a weekend trip to New York, to see the Christmas decorations. The Husband thought I was perhaps a little bit insane to want to immerse myself the crowds and to want to take such a trip just a couple of days before we’re leaving to spend Christmas in California, but was willing to go along. But his work schedule (and common sense) interfered with the plans. Instead we decided to have our own Washington Day O’ Christmasy Fun.

After a big breakfast at home of blueberry pancakes, we started the WDOCF with a visit to Washington National Cathedral. We were at the Cathedral just a few weeks ago, for a performance of Handel’s Messiah, which had been lovely. Listening to the music, the enormous space had felt cozy, and I was able to hold onto the feeling when we returned yesterday. It was the first time I’d been there on a sunny day, so the stained glass windows were much more spectacular than on my previous visits. The Husband was quite impressed as I pointed out scenes from Bible stories in the windows, until he figured out that I was reading from a handout I’d picked up at the entrance.

Washington National Cathedral

The main point of our trip to the Cathedral was to see the display of crèches from around the world. It was fantastic to see how different cultures use local materials to create a nativity scene that fits with the culture’s own experience: scenes from Africa included elephants and giraffes, while scenes from Alaska featured bears and moose. I loved a miniature scene from New Mexico, hand cast from sterling silver, every piece tiny and perfect, and a scene from Peru with characters carved from gourds.

As I was describing my plans for the WDOCF, someone asked me, “What does pizza have to do with Christmas?” Answer: “I like it, and we’ll be in the neighborhood, so I’m not passing up the chance to go to 2 Amys.” Obviously. 2 Amys is our favorite pizza place in Washington. The pizzas are fantastic, very much the style of what we had in Italy last spring. Unfortunately, it’s also the favorite pizza place of many other people in the area, and the wait for a table in the evenings is well over an hour. At two on a Saturday afternoon, though, we only waited for about ten minutes, before we were seated and not much longer after that, we were provided with delicious pizza-y goodness.

Filled with more pizza than was probably healthy, we began to wander down Wisconsin Avenue, with the eventual goal of ending up in the Sculpture Garden for some ice skating—not exactly the same as skating under the tree at Rockefeller Center, but we figured it would do. But as we meandered slowly along, wandering into a couple of stores in search of a present for the final person on our list (didn’t find it, but did come up with an Idea), the afternoon began to slip away. We decided to skip the skating and head directly for the final two items on the list for the WDOCF: the White House and Capitol Christmas trees.

A couple of weeks ago, the Washington Post ran an article about the competition among public Christmas trees. The one at Rockefeller Center was lit a day before the White House tree. In the past, there has been competition between the White House and the Capitol for which tree would have its ceremonial first lighting of the year, but that’s apparently been less of a problem in current years with the same party controlling both the White House and the Congress. I thought the article was a little bit ridiculous (especially because it was run on the front page, rather than in the Metro or Style sections), but I must say that if there is to be a competition between Washington’s two trees, the one at the Capitol wins it quite handily.

The National Christmas Tree on the Ellipse was mobbed with people. We joined the shuffle around the outside of the tree, admiring the big tree in the center, the electric trains set up around it, and the smaller trees for each state and territory that ringed the outside of the walkway. The main tree was decorated with white lights running up and down the tree, and big blue and white lights instead of ornaments. The smaller trees had been decorated by people from their states—mostly senior centers and elementary schools—and it was hard to see the ornaments as they were protected from the elements inside little plastic globes. We did like the California tree, which each little globe labeled with something from a different part of the state—“Pacific Grove Butterflies,” “Sea World,” “Napa Valley.” We warmed our hands by the bonfire—excuse me, yule log—listened to the children’s bell choir for a few songs, and then headed on our way.

National Christmas Tree

California's tree

It had been a nice day (you know the Californians have been in Washington too long when they consider a December day with a high in the mid-40s “nice”), but once it got dark it got cold rather quickly. We began to look for a Starbucks, so we could rest our feet and get warm. The first one we found, though, only had a few tables, and we really needed to sit down. The second one we found closed. We ended up in the Gordon Biersch brewery, having beer and garlic fries. (Note: the garlic fries at Pac Bell or SBC or whatever the ballpark is going to be called now are MUCH better and more garlicky.)

We headed for the Capitol, feeling refreshed. Once we headed out of Penn Quarter, the streets were nearly empty, and it was amusing to see the totally empty lawns before the Capitol: the last time I was there was among a group of thousands who had come to pay respects to Rosa Parks.

That's me!

I love the Capitol dome and it was lovely to see it with the Christmas tree in front from across the reflecting pool. The pool itself was mostly frozen, but the ducks were still spending time there. They waddled around on the ice, and when I went to take their picture they came up to beg for food. We got to see a couple of them land on the ice, and it was amusing to see them try to do their water landing and be thwarted by the solid surface of the pool.

Ducks on ice

The Christmas tree itself was approximately eleventy jillion times better than the National tree, and the crowd was significantly smaller. It had been sent from New Mexico, and stood 60 feet tall with a trunk 26 inches in diameter. It was decorated in colored lights and ornaments made by New Mexicans. The Husband and I delighted in the number of schoolchild hours that must have gone into preparing the dream catchers, God’s Eyes, and aliens that decked the tree—all hours that were not devoted to preparing for standardized tests. The ornaments weren’t secured in little plastic globes, and the tree seemed much more personal that the tree at the White House.

The Capitol Christmas tree

Decorations from New Mexico

We admired the tree, and then dragged our cold bodies and tired feet back home.


ann said...

Happy Holidays! Thanks for the DC Christmas tour :)

Christie Grabyan said...

yay for SBC garlic fries. They are the epitome of garlicky goodness.

Jennifer said...

Lovely pix and descriptions of all the sights...Happy belated WDOCF!