If you’re easily overwhelmed by the plastics and electronics and commercial histrionics of the winter holidays, and you wish you could have a nice traditional holiday experience with rosy cheeks and hot cider and flickering gas lamps, Christmas in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia might be just the place for you.
Old Town is lovely any time of year, but during the holidays the traditions of the city make it one of the nicest places in the mid-Atlantic, with excellent Christmas shopping to boot.
The season kicks off on November 29, Black Friday, with a wonderful alternative to the mayhem at the malls and big box stores. More than 50 small boutiques in Old Town will open at 6 am with discounts of up to 30%. Though the discounts get smaller as the day goes on, the incentives do not, as the city offers free parking on the streets and city-owned garages for the day.
Later that night, just after dark, the mayor and Santa Claus will light the city tree on Market Square, with musical accompaniment from the Alexandria Harmonizers and the Alexandria Choral Society, including caroling and a community sing-along.
Santa and Mrs. Claus are back in Old Town Alexandria to take pictures with children every Saturday and Sunday between Thanksgiving and Christmas at Rashmi Pappu Photography Studio, 210 N. Lee Street. If you’re lucky, you might catch Santa between photo sessions playing his bagpipes on the streets of Old Town.
In 1749, the city of Alexandria was officially established by three Scottish merchants and named after its original founder John Alexander, also of Scottish descent. If you’ve never heard of the Scottish Walk, you’re in for a real treat on December 7. On that day Alexandria celebrates its Scottish heritage with a parade of more than 100 Scottish clans dressed in tartan through the streets of Old Town. You’ll hear the trills and rhythms of pipe and drum bands and the dignified barks of terriers and hounds as they lead the way for Santa playing his bagpipes through the town. The parade starts at 11am , but you’d better be there early to get the best view.
At sundown on the day of the Scottish Christmas Walk parade, Alexandria’s harbor lights up as more than 50 illuminated boats cruise the Potomac River at the historic waterfront, led by Alexandria’s fireboat Vigilant and Washington, DC’s fireboat John Glenn, featuring a special appearance by Santa. If you get down to the dock early, you’ll see Santa arrive by boat at 3 pm.
Civil War Holiday
From noon until 4 pm on December 14, visitors to Fort Ward Museum and Historic Site can meet a Civil War-era Santa at this family-friendly holiday event that explores how Christmas was observed during the Civil War. The program features living-history interpreters, a Victorian Christmas tree, refreshments, readings of The Night Before Christmas and a patriotic Santa Claus inspired by Thomas Nast’s Civil War cartoon. Guided tours of the fort, weather permitting. Suggested donation $2/adult, $1/child
Tour by candlelight
Several of Alexandria’s most historic sites are open the evening of December 14 and afternoon of the 15th for candlelight tours. To honor 2013 as the “Year of the Virginia Historic Home,” guests are invited to travel through time and experience Alexandria’s colonial, Victorian and 1930’s history and domestic life during the holiday season at Carlyle House, Gadsby’s Tavern Museum, Lee-Fendall House and Lloyd House. On this self-guided tour, patrons enjoy sites by candlelight and hear live musical performances while surrounded by seasonal greenery. Free shuttle service between sites is available.
Alexandria’s History Museum will once again host two free concerts by the Colonial Handbell Ringers’ festive holiday musical show on December 15. Get into the holiday spirit and sing along with the group’s one hour performance of holiday classics. Though the event is free, reservations are required. Guests can contact the Lyceum for reservations.
Ring in the New Year
To round out the holiday season, Alexandria hosts the family-friendly First Night celebration, with activities for kids all afternoon, live music performances throughout the city in the evening, and fireworks at midnight. Tickets are $15 before December 19, $20 after. Kids under 12 and active military are admitted free of charge.
All Over the Map and Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association are offering a chance to win a family pack of four passes to First Night Alexandria and a souvenir apron. Go to our contest page to enter by December 19.
Celebrate Like George Washington
Christmas at Mount Vernon is a special time, themed decorations, chocolate-making demonstrations and 18th-century dancing, plus a rare opportunity to tour the third floor of the Mansion. George Washington loved the holidays, and enjoyed inviting guests to his home. In 1787, George Washington paid 18 shillings to bring a camel to Mount Vernon for the enjoyment of his guests. Today, Aladdin the camel is one of the biggest attractions for kids.
New in 2013, the Mount Vernon Holiday Trolley will shuttle visitors between Old Town Alexandria and Mount Vernon. The trolley will board near the Alexandria Visitors Center and Market Square at the corner of King and N. Fairfax streets on the hour from 9 am to 3 pm every Friday, Saturday and Sunday through the holiday season. Alexandria’s Town Crier will join visitors on the inaugural Holiday Trolley ride at 9 am on the Friday after Thanksgiving, November 29. Tickets include a round-trip trolley ride and admission to Mount Vernon at a cost of $25 for adults and $8 for children under 12. Tickets may be purchased at the Alexandria Visitors Center, 221 King Street, online at www.trustedtours.com or by phone at 202-832-9800. The trolley will operate through December 29.
I highly recommend weekend evening “Mount Vernon by Candlelight” tours. “Mrs. Washington” and several other characters from Washington’s time lead guests through an evening of candlelight tours, fireside caroling and festive treats. Timed tickets are $22 for adults and $15 for children 11 and under.