Metro station managers are wearing stocking caps with elf ears, the National Archives propped a lone wreath over their rear door, and that church on Allison st. finally replaced the manger scene that got hit by a drunk driver last year. It’s Christmas in the District again.
It seems like every other major city in the United States has a distinct Christmas routine. Manhattan gets the ice rink and tree outside Rockefeller Center. Los Angeles has the Newport Beach Boat Parade. Even Fort Lauderdale’s got a fat guy in a Santa outfit hanging out under the palm trees. So, why does D.C. gets stuck with the National Christmas Tree lighting ceremony, and that’s it?
In this edition of Hidden in Plain Sight, my friends and I aim to smash that stereotype to pieces. Go put your scarf on, Scrooge. We’re going to see what Christmas is like in the District.
Hidden Gems for the Holidays
Okie doke, so now your parents are in town, and they want to go see something special during their stay. Are you going to freeze your ass off at the monuments? Are you going to write to your home-state’s congressperson for a White House visit? Are you going to wade through throngs of other tourists waiting for Nutcracker tickets? No. No, you are not. You know why you aren’t? You’re better than that. Here are some fun places to go with your family (or fun places to go with your friends to avoid your family) that are only slightly off the beaten path:
At the time of the American Civil War, there was no process in place for tracking down or identifying missing soldiers. Officers would sometimes get lucky, and have a name or number sewn into their uniform. However, for the common infantryman, there were no dogtags, no paperwork, really no means of identification at all. It was for this reason Clara Barton began her project of identifying missing soldiers and POWs. She cut a mail slot into the door of a 7th st. boarding house, and received 60,000 letters. With a staff of just sixteen people, she was able to track down 22,000 missing soldiers. Shortly after her time in DC, she went to Europe, and brought the Red Cross back to the States. She was an amazing woman, and her museum is well-worth the visit.
I know what you’re thinking… “This is Christmas. What exactly does Islamic art have to do with Christmas?” That’s a good question. I could suggest that this exhibit features some of the most lavish and ornate Qur’an manuscripts in the world, most of which come from the same corner of the world where the Christian faith originated. I could also point out that the museum in which this exhibit is held is one of the quieter museums on the Mall. My favorite reason, though, is that despite a vitriolic anti-Muslim sentiment spreading across the country, the Smithsonian chooses to acknowledge one of the most beautiful aspects of Islam, and put it front and center.
It’s cold outside, and I can’t think of a better way to de-frost than skeeball. It’s low-exertion, which means it’s just fine for your parents. It also doesn’t need to be competitive, which means it’s great for kids, too. It’s one of the easiest games to learn, but one of the toughest to master. It’s cheap, you can do it while drinking beer, and can still keep a conversation going while playing. H Street Country Club also has giant Jenga, pinball, and a mini-golf course upstairs. It’s all the best parts of a visit to Dave and Busters, without having to deal with mall rats queuing up for the Dance Dance Revolution game.
While everyone trudges through the mud on the Ellipse, you can be a block away, in the warmth of a mansion-turned-gallery. The Pan-American Union Building, now the headquarters of the Organization of American States, has a smaller Spanish Colonial building on its compound, which features art from every corner of North, Central, and South America. The gallery is free to the public, and has a relatively high changeover rate of exhibits.
Remember how we mentioned Beach Drive being closed for re-paving? It’s still partially shut down to traffic. The asphalt paths along Beach Drive are completely open, though. So are the un-paved paths, hiking routes, and deer trails through the woods. If you’d like to go for a wintery hike with your folks through the woods before dinner, or if you’re trying to escape your folks and enjoy some solitude, Rock Creek Park would is an obvious choice.
Every year, we see grainy smartphone footage of Black Friday sales, watching open-mouthed as some poor bastard gets trampled. This is not, as Dickens would put it, the way to “keep Christmas well.” It’s greed, it’s avarice, and it’s not in the true spirit of the holiday. Wouldn’t it be better for the world over if Christmas shopping were more like this?
“The poulterers’ shops were still half open, and the fruiterers’ were radiant in their glory. There were great, round, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence. There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish Friars, and winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls as they went by, and glanced demurely at the hung-up mistletoe. There were pears and apples, clustered high in blooming pyramids; there were bunches of grapes, made, in the shopkeepers’ benevolence to dangle from conspicuous hooks, that people’s mouths might water gratis as they passed…”
—A Christmas Carol, Stave 3, Charles Dickens
I like to take the time over Christmas to buy things for loved ones that they would never buy for themselves. A couple years ago, I bought my little sister a turntable. It wasn’t a terribly expensive present, nor is it terribly useful… but if there’s even the littlest bit of joy to be had, I believe a gift is worth giving. She has since pilfered my record collection to add to her own. I’m not even mad. Here are some places where you can find some joy to send to people you love:
It’s like the circus rolling into town. I still get a little leap of excitement when I see the tent tops getting set up on F st. at the foot of the Portrait Gallery. Dozens of stalls, hundreds of craft techniques, and thousands of unique pieces are all on sale at the Holiday Market. The majority of what you’ll find here is made by hand. You’ll also find the person who made it is the same person selling it to you. It’s a good idea to make a good relationship with the merchants you like best; you might want to come back the following year for something else.
For one day only, the Shops at Crystal City hosts a craft fair in celebration of the season. Everything from pastries to jewelry, and vintage clothing to handmade furniture will be at this market. It’s in its fifth year, which I believe means they’ve had time to perfect their vendor lineup, and streamline the event. There is no filler here. It’s all the genuine article. Don’t miss the date; it’ll be gone the next day.
While they don’t have the largest selection in town (yes we know that title belongs to you Joe’s Record Paradise, now please sit down), Record Exchange in Silver Spring has a lot going for it. One of the better examples is just inside the door, walking into the shop: bins of old promotional patches, stickers, and postcards from 80’s and 90’s favorites. Where else are you going to find a Tragic Kingdom patch from No Doubt? The focus here is to fill the emptiness that nostalgia inevitably creates. Does your sibling really miss the old N64? Record Exchange has some there. Games, too. This is a great shop that caters to those who wish to reconnect to their best memories. Isn’t that what spreading joy should be all about?
If all else fails, and you’ve missed the window of opportunity for these markets, just head straight toward Eastern Market on a Saturday or Sunday morning. Capitol Hill Books, Silk Road, and the pottery shop under the Market all get my vote of confidence.
Those in Need
Last year, we went over a few dishes and recipes for a delicious Christmas dinner. While I could certainly stand to do that all over again (I truly could eat Christmas dinner every day until I die, and would be happy), I think we ought to address something fairly serious this year: In every town all over the world, there are people who go hungry on Christmas night. If this is truly going to be a season of joy and light, all of us need to chip in to help those in need. No exceptions.
So how does one help? I’m so glad you asked! There are coat drives, food banks, charity funds, and even a few auctions to help people who could use a little joy. The easiest way to help, of course, is to just give generously. It doesn’t take much to help someone, either. $20 goes a long way at a shelter. It would go even further if we all gave.
Just take a brief look at the links below to see how you can do your part to make the season bright:
You’ve gone on an adventure, you’ve taken care of your shopping, you’ve helped those in need… I’d say it’s about time for a drink, wouldn’t you? My friend, Lukas Smith of Cotton & Reed has just the drink…
I call it the Chicken Hawk: Click on your water kettle. Pour an ounce and a half of strong whiskey therein, something along the lines of Wild Turkey 101. To this, add 1/4 oz of lemon juice, 1/4 oz simple syrup, and 1/4 oz Allspice Dram. Top with steaming water. Garnish with a slice of orange, if you’ve got it. This drink is boozy, a little bit sweet, and assertively spiced.
In short, it smells like Christmas, it bites like the holidays, and it’s name is a reminder that Foghorn Leghorn never did away with the chicken hawk, no matter how much his truculence called for it.
I’ve got a few more of my own worth trying. These are good for either making in large batches for a party, or just making yourself a measure of something before gently passing out.
Start prepping hot chocolate the way your grandmother used to make it: cocoa, sugar, and whole milk, whisked into a medium saucepan, over medium heat. Keep stirring, and don’t let it boil. Just before it’s done, get out that bottle of Rumple Minze you’ve had in the freezer for ages, and add two ounces per drinker to the hot chocolate. If you want to be a real nefarious elf, soak a few mini marshmallows in Bailey’s, and add that to the cup. It’s full of sugar, which conveniently hides the booze. Drink carefully.
The Dark Toddy
Orange pekoe black tea, honey, lemon, Sheep Dip blended scotch, a dash of lavender, and a cinnamon stick, the proportions of which are all to taste. This is a variation on the traditional hot toddy that your grandfather probably served you when you were sick. It’s got a little caffeine, which will clear the head, but it’s mostly a smoky booze and warmth. It’s like drinking a sweater. This is best drunk when sitting in an armchair, under a blanket, in front of a fire, alternating looks out the window and at the Christmas tree inside. If you can drink it this way, the argument in the next room just fades into sweet silence.
But what about the tunes? You can’t have a proper celebration without music. I think Mister Fezziwig said that. So, whether you’re going to be with your family for Christmas, or with friends, these tunes should serve you well.