Now that shopping is mostly done (hopefully!), it’s time to consider some holiday experiences that you and your family will remember and cherish for years to come.

Bundling up into winter gear and braving the snow and cold is worth the effort when you visit some of the best—and most beautiful—events of the year in the region.

With spectacular light shows to combat December darkness and cheerful music to lighten the heart, there’s a little something for everyone in the variety of activities from which to choose.

As the song says, “Sleigh bells ring / Are you listening?/ In the lane / Snow is glistening / A beautiful sight / We’re happy tonight / Walking in a winter wonderland.”

See if you think the following activities—which are all free of charge—might be worth taking a walk in the winter weather.

ZooLights at Smithsonian’s National Zoo

Who doesn’t love zoo animals? What would you think of zoo animals made out of lights?

Lit-up silhouettes of an octopus, a Komodo dragon, elephants, gibbons, big cats, and of course, the zoo’s iconic giant pandas are viewable free of charge at the National Zoo, along with more animals and thousands of additional lights adorning trees, bridges and archways—all set to music.

A Zoo Choo Choo carries families through stunning views of illumination, and you can warm up while you check out the nocturnal animals in the indoor animal houses, most of which are open for visitors.

On Lion and Tiger Hill, a 150-foot tubing run, is set up and can be enjoyed with or without snow (for a minimal charge). Costumed characters are on hand for hugs and photos, and a variety of holiday treats are available for sale, including hot chocolate, donuts and kettle corn.

A crusade in 1887 by the Smithsonian’s chief taxidermist, William Temple Hornaday, initiated creation of a National Zoological Park. After visiting the western United States, Hornaday was shocked to witness the devastation of the formerly huge bison herds there, so he took steps to protect them along with 15 other North American species.

All proceeds from the sales of Zoo Lights refreshments and souvenirs go toward continuing the park’s dedication to conservation.

Mormon Temple Festival

of Lights

You’ve seen the stunning edifice as you round a bend on westbound 495 approaching Kensington, Md. Rising up on the horizon is the castle-like Mormon Temple, especially vivid illuminated at night, and even more so during the Christmas season, with over half a million multicolored lights setting off the brilliant white structure.

This year will be the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ 39th annual Festival of Lights, one of the D.C. area’s favorite community traditions. Always free to the public, visitors are welcome to walk through the wonderland of lights and see the lifesize Nativity on display near the visitor’s center.

Inside is an exhibit of 85 international créche scenes, as well as Christmas trees decorated with dolls from around the world. Every night at 7 and 8:30 p.m., different musical groups perform free of charge in a comfortable, family-friendly theater, including bell ensembles, orchestras, choirs and more.

  • 9900 Stoneybrook Drive, Kensington, Md. Open daily in December 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., exhibits and performances (7 and 8:30 p.m. daily) at the visitor’s center continue through Jan. 1. Visitor’s center open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. 301/587-0144;

Georgetown GLOW exhibit

Relatively new to the D.C. winter scene is Georgetown’s GLOW exhibit, a curated public light-art installation on display throughout the historic neighborhood.

Now in its third year and presented by the Georgetown Business Improvement District, works are lit from 6–10 p.m. daily through Jan. 1.

Commissioned light sculptures by local, regional and international artists invite interactivity—viewers are welcome to walk in, on and around each piece, while some invite you to actually become a part of the artwork.

As you walk through D.C.’s oldest neighborhood in search of each piece of light art, enjoy the Holiday Window Competition with about 18 out of more than 450 local businesses competing for the best decorated window.

  • Georgetown’s commercial district, including along the historic C&O Canal, Georgetown Waterfront Park, Grace Church, Washington Harbour and Wisconsin Avenue. Works lit 6–10 p.m. daily through Jan. 1.

U.S. Botanical Garden

Plants have never been more fascinating than they are in the U.S. Botanic Garden’s “Season’s Greenings” displays, open daily through Jan. 2 and free to the public.

The garden’s famous model train returns, but unique this year in honor of the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, the train winds around and through representational plant sculptures of more than 50 national parks and historic sites.

Meticulously created from all-natural materials, see the Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty, the California Redwoods and much more. How many of these iconic locations can you identify?

In the Garden Court you’ll find a collection of miniature D.C. landmarks—the Capitol, the Library of Congress, the Lincoln Memorial and more—again, all created from natural materials.

If these displays don’t lift your spirits, a walk through the Conservatory’s collection of thousands of blooms, including exotic orchids and a showcase of heirloom and newly developed poinsettia varieties should do the trick, as well as the large indoor tree decked out with ornaments from national parks.

  • 100 Maryland Ave. SW, Washington, D.C. Open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesdays and Thursdays open till 8 p.m. with live musical performances at 6 p.m. 202/225-8333;

Emily Jennings is a Stafford-based freelance writer.

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