Manassas National Battlefield

Where: 6511 Sudley Rd., Manassas, VA
When: Open daily from dawn to dusk- admission is free

Imagine this. You are 85 years old, and very ill, confined to your bed. You’ve heard talk of some big to-do going on in the area but otherwise, you are largely oblivious to the general climate of the country and the inferno steadily building in the now-early days of the Civil War. One morning, there is quite the ruckus going on out in the yard and you are told there will be a battle and you must be moved. But no. You are old. You want to stay in your own bed. So there you stay, even as Confederate sharpshooters enter your home and tuck themselves into niches and nooks and crannies to use as vantage points for shooting at Federal troops out in the field.

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As you are lying helpless in bed, there is suddenly a monstrous noise and a piece of hot, burning metal rips its way through the wall and tears off one of your feet. Yes, one of your feet. Your home has just been shelled in an attempt to rout out the Confederate sharpshooters within. They’re okay. But you have lost a foot. A few hours later, you die from your injuries.

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Such was the plight of Judith Henry, civilian casualty of the first Battle at Manassas during the Civil War. Foot blown off, and death. War is hell, man.

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RIP Judith. And Judith’s foot.

The Civil War is chock-full of stories like that. For the United States, the Civil War is kind of like that one great-great-uncle who is somewhat embarrassing because he’s full of outdated and offensive beliefs, but has some interesting tall tales that are cool to hear when he’s lucid enough to tell them. It’s one of our nation’s strangest episodes, as fascinating as it is ugly. And we are lucky enough here in Virginia to be close to many integral sites featured in some of the most famous stories from the Civil War- including Manassas National Battlefield, home to not one but two battles during the Civil War.

Probably the most important thing you should know about Manassas Battlefield is that it is here where General Thomas Jonathan Jackson earned his legendary and enduring nickname, “Stonewall.” Most likely, this is the only way you know him- Stonewall Jackson, as if it were his given name. It’s not- he was bestowed this nickname by fellow Confederate Army General Barnard E. Bee, who yelled to his troops, “There is Jackson standing like a stone wall! Rally behind the Virginians!”

Unfortunately, Bee died at Manassas as well, shortly after coining one of the most famous nicknames in history. RIP Bee.

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Interestingly enough, there’s a decent amount of controversy surrounding Bee’s nickname for Jackson. Some say it was a compliment to Jackson’s bravery and discipline and command- that he was figuratively a sturdy, unshakable “stone wall.” Others who were on the field that day claimed that Bee actually meant it as an insult. There’s Jackson, just standing there doing nothing, like a stone wall. It’s possible to see it both ways I suppose, if you subtly adjust your inflection when saying it to yourself:

“There stands Jackson… like a stone wall!!”

“There stands Jackson. Like a stone wall.”

However, because Bee shortly after perished of injuries sustained in this battle, no one knows for sure what his true intent was in calling Jackson “Stonewall” and the nickname became one representing admiration, loyalty, and deep respect. You can be anyone you want to be if people who say bad things about you die before you do.

Here’s another interesting thing about Manassas Battlefield- the two battles fought there are referred to by different names. Depending on where you grew up, you may know these battles to be called the Battle(s) of Bull Run. Or you may know them to be called the Battle(s) of Manassas. The Confederate forces referred to the Battles as occurring at Manassas, whereas the Union forces used Bull Run. Technically either name is correct but the Confederate Army won that bout and we are in Virginia after all, so it is most often referred to around here as Battle of Manassas.

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There are walking trails of varying lengths around Manassas Battlefield- the 1 mile Henry Hill loop which is accessible from the Henry Hill Vistor’s Center, and the longer First and Second Battle Loop Trails. Guided tours are available beginning at the Visitor’s Center, as well as a 45-minute movie detailing the battles and various interactive displays that detail the battles. Although now closed for the season, on weekends beginning in April 2016, you can stop by the Stone House, which was used as a field hospital for the two battles, and the Brawner Farm Interpretive Center, which sits at Brawner Farm, site of the Second Battle at Manassas.

Because we went on a winter day when these auxiliary sites were closed, we settled with a tour around Henry Hill and the site of First Battle at Manassas, and a visit to the GIFT SHOP. I’m a sucker for a gift shop. My kids always say, “Can we go in the gift shop?” and I usually say, “Yes, but we aren’t buying anything,” and then at least 50% of the time I end up buying something. Because I’m a sucker.

I did buy something at the Henry Hill Vistor’s Center gift shop, but hear me out. I decided it was high time my family had their own National Park Passport. Have you heard of these? A company called Eastern National makes them and there’s a space to stick a collector’s stamp (also made by Eastern National each year) and a hand-cancellation from every national park in the U.S. Many parks sell them in their gift shops (including Henry Hill) and they’re just $8.95. We purchased ours and plan to take it along on every national park trip we make in the future. This now gives me even more reason to visit Gift Shops (score).

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At Manassas Battlefield, you get FOUR stamps in your passport: one for the main battlefield at Henry Hill, one for the Stone House, one for Brawner Farm, and one for a somewhat new thing called the Journey Through Hallowed Ground, which is a 180-mile loop through four states (Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia) that includes presidential homes, battle sites, and other sites of historical importance. The sites along the Journey Through Hallowed Ground loop get their own JTHG stamp and I gather this is a very big deal because the JTHG site uses language such as “thrilled” and “most exciting” to reveal their inclusion in the Passport program. It just seems like this might be a deeply felt honor. Actually, the Journey Through Hallowed Ground thing looks pretty neat and I requested a map and will likely plan some trips to follow a couple of their suggested itineraries. 

Make a day of it:

Nearby is The Winery at Bull Run (or, I guess you could call it The Winery at Manassas if you want), open at 11 am-7pm Saturday-Wednesday, and until 8 pm on Thursdays and 9 pm on Fridays.

While we were out in this direction we decided to visit the tiny town of Clifton for lunch. Clifton is a one-street, no-stoplight throwback of a town with an adorable Main Street dotted with wine shops, cupcake bakeries, and several restaurants. We ate at Main Street Pub and then took a stroll up and down Main Street, stopping in to let the kids climb on the red caboose before heading out.

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Clifton was so charming that I came home, got a babysitter, and made reservations for my husband and me to return Friday evening for dinner at Trummer’s on Main. I’ll be celebrating January 1st with one of their signature cocktails, The Titanic. Cheers!

Renwick Gallery: WONDER Exhibition

Where: 1700 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, DC
When: Open daily, 10 am-5 pm (admission is free)

In countless books that I own, page upon page features a corner folded down on itself. These corners represent awe. They are the marker of a sentence, passage, paragraph that is so well written my mind is momentarily silenced. A folded down corner indicates that while I was reading, some use of language was so beautiful, so truthful, so full of imagery or import that I felt compelled to honor it in some way. I very likely read it over again several times, pulling whatever message it contained into myself where it could nestle among the other beautiful things I have seen, heard, smelled, touched in my lifetime. And then I folded down the corner so that in years to come, I could return to it again in moments when I need to come in contact with beauty.

This feeling of admiring awe is deeply imbued throughout the entire WONDER exhibition currently on display at the Renwick Gallery. I would fold down every single corner of every page if WONDER were a book. I would buy copies for all my friends and distribute them lavishly and freely. Although it was on my to-do list, I never got around to visiting the installation-du-jour from this past summer, Beach at the National Building Museum. It looked cute and fun, but ultimately I wasn’t overly upset to have missed it. WONDER hasn’t received nearly the same amount of coverage as Beach but oh my gosh. If you don’t see it (YOU MUST SEE IT) you will have lost out. It is special. It filled me with envy. Oh to imagine the world the way these artists did. To be crowned with the ability to envision these things and the ability to create them out of thin air. To be able to make people lie on the floor of a public building because they yearn to fully experience what you intended them to experience.

We went through the exhibit twice, unwilling to let it go. I will probably go back at least one more time before the exhibition begins closing in May 2016. Please go. Take yourself. Take your children. Take anyone you know. You can invite me, I’ll come.

Open again after two years of renovations, the stately and regal Renwick Gallery is the perfect home for the WONDER exhibition. There are nine displays, and each display gets its own room- both for size considerations (the displays are huge) and so that each exhibit stands alone, separate and apart from the other exhibits, which allows visitors to fully absorb them and take them in without distraction.

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What I found so stunning about the WONDER exhibition was how each exhibit was unique and unlike any other exhibit in the gallery, and yet somehow the whole collection just fits together. No one installation looks like any other; each room is completely different, each creation has its own mood and feel, but the sum total is as if the whole thing is of a piece. I’m no good at art or maybe I could explain it better. I wish I could.

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Nature appears to be the common thread that ties each room together- whether the pieces represent something in nature (as with the white mountains above, made with stacked index cards) or are literally built from nature, as with the display above, which was made using saplings. Represented are light, volume, waves, trees, bugs- and in the middle of it all, humans, fully interacting with each exhibit. “Hey,” you realize. “Hey. I’m part of this system, too.” I can’t recall another exhibition that I’ve seen that makes you feel as though you’re a vital component in the whole setup the way WONDER does. You are not merely at the exhibition. You are a part of it.

More than any other art installation or exhibition I can remember, WONDER inspires awe and conversation. Here is no quiet contemplation or rumination. All around me was discussion of what each piece meant, which piece was preferred. Upon entering one room I heard a woman say to her companion, “This entrance is much more impressive than coming in from the other side.” Everyone meandered and poked, trying to find the most interesting viewpoint, a new way of looking at each sculpture. My children and I discussed which were our favorites and why. I have pretty much never had this much fun in an art gallery is what I’m saying.

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In the Grand Salon upstairs was the sculpture that absolutely rocked me- 1.8 by Janet Echelman.

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Echelman’s sculpture is a visual representation of the shock waves that that tore across the Pacific Ocean in the 2004 tsunami that devastated Thailand and South Asia. And here what was violent and brutal and ugly becomes ethereal and beautiful. The lights change color every so often, morphing the experience each time you look. Destruction at the hands of Janet Echelman becomes delicate, gliding through the universe on gossamer.

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Looming through a doorway in the Grand Salon is John Grade’s Middle Fork, a cedar replica made from the cast of a 150-year-old hemlock tree.

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In WONDER, you approach a tree as never before- from the very bottom.

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One of the most magical things about the WONDER exhibition is how your sense of your own scale adjusts with each display. In Untitled and Shindig, you feel dwarfed by monoliths; enveloped. In Middle Fork, you feel small next this mighty felled tree. In the next room, which features Maya Lin’s Folding the Chesapeake, you suddenly feel transformed into something much larger. The marbled representation of the Chesapeake Bay spilling across the floor and up the walls gives the illusion of viewing the bay from a God-like perspective. You are no longer within or below- you loom above.

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When we had made our way through all the exhibits on the top floor, we repeated the circuit once more, popping back into the Grand Salon and finally, despite my initial hesitations (“This is gross, no, we aren’t lying on the floor”), acquiescing to the demands of 1.8… and lying on the floor, to go underwater, so to speak. To become even smaller. To be subsumed.

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I can’t speak for everyone else in the Grand Salon, sprawled on the floor with me or otherwise. Perhaps not everyone felt at that moment the deep, throbbing appreciation and yes, envy, that I did. That is the point of art, right? To touch something within you? All I know is that lying on the floor of the Renwick Gallery’s Grand Salon, immersed in 1.8, I felt that same cognizant stillness that comes when I fold down the corner of a page of a good book. I wish I did this. I wish I could do this. What a gift to be able to do this. I want to remember this. 

I can’t say enough how essential I consider a visit to WONDER Exhibition to be. It is magnificent in its scope, in what it represents, in what it stirs within. I went through twice and in writing this post, have decided a third go-round is necessary. It is a feast for the eyes, a joy for the heart, a puzzle for the brain; it is tactile without ever allowing itself to be touched, and illuminating without ever letting itself be fully known. I’m not going to say it. I won’t do it. Okay, I’m gonna do it.

It’s wondrous.


 

We showed up at 11 am and the gallery was crowded, but not unbearably so. However, when we left the gallery around noon, the line to get in (which did not exist when we arrived) had wrapped around the building and was halfway down to the White House, a block away. If you’re planning to visit on a weekend or a weekday during Christmas break, be prepared to arrive early, or to wait in a line. 

Great Falls Park

Where: 9200 Old Dominion Dr., McLean, VA
When: Open daily from 7 am- sunset (visitor’s center open from 10 am- 4 pm). Entrance fee is $10/vehicle.

On December 27, my family, and everyone else’s family, went to Great Falls Park to get outside and take advantage of the unseasonably warm weather El Nino gave us for Christmas this year. I’m not sure about you, but I can’t decide how I feel about it being in the 70s in December. On the one hand, warm weather is nice. On the other hand, if we don’t get any winter weather this year I worry I’ll have missed out on the yearly experience of complaining incessantly about the weather. How does one proceed?

Anyway, what you need to know about this warm weather is that it will most certainly cause a delay getting into the park if you don’t get there early enough. My family scooted into the park just before 10:30 am and the wait was about four cars long. When we were leaving around noon, the wait was considerably longer. The National Park Service kindly warns visitors of this on their page, but in case you don’t want to poke around over there, just know that on a nice day, the line to get into Great Falls Park can, and has, stretched all the way out to Georgetown Pike, the length of which line will result in about an hour long wait to get up to the gate. So earlier is definitely better if you can swing it.

The park was crowded the day we went, and I was tickled to see later that many local Instagram accounts I follow were posting pictures from either Great Falls Park or the Maryland side of the falls at the Billy Goat Trail. It seems every family in Virginia looked at each other that morning and said “I don’t know, want to go to Great Falls?” It’s highly possible I saw some of you there and didn’t know it. Hi! I was the one crabbing at my toddler for whining about her wet shoes after she jumped in a puddle.

The last time we had gone was over the summer (June 30, thanks to my handy dandy iPhone photo-dating) and the falls looked quite different from 6 months ago:

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The lush greens tucked around the falls during the summer have of course given way to a starker, more ascetic look in December:

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Still lovely! All good things!

There’s three separate spots to view the falls, each with a slightly different view than the others. This was the third spot, located furthest from the falls, which gives you a more panoramic view. The first spot is right on top of the falls practically, which is quite titillating.

Nearby is a stick that shows the high water levels from previous years:

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I have a rich imagination that tends to the dramatic, so in my mind, with all this seemingly never-ending rain we’ve had lately, I figured surely the falls would be roaring lions of tumbling rapids and we would have met a notch on this pole. Then I was brought back down to earth by seeing that no, we had not even reached the paltry water levels of 1985. In my mind we were easily at 1937. The reality was there were a few standing puddles and the falls were no more gushing and wild than usual and I need to really dial things back.

After you’ve viewed the falls, there’s a variety of trails you can take to explore the park. If you’ve got kids with you, stop into the Visitor’s Center on your way in and grab a Junior Ranger booklet (or visit this page and print one out to take with you). Using the map and the instructions in the book, kids can tour the park filling in responses to the questions within and then, after showing their completed booklet to a ranger at the Visitor’s Center, earn a Junior Ranger badge. I did the packet for kids age 5-7 with my daughter during our summer visit and she loved it! It’s a fun, interactive way to keep kids interested in the park and paying attention to what’s going on around them.

Once you’ve got your Junior Ranger booklet, hit the trails!

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The Canal Trail takes you the route of the old Patowmack Canal, which was built to help ships bypass the falls as they made their way down the Potomac River. Along this trail you can see remains of the locks that would lift and carry ships past the falls.

The Matildaville Trail takes you by the ruins of the little town of Matildaville, which was built to house the canal-workers who built the Patowmack Canal. Both the canal and Matildaville lie in unused ruins now because ultimately the entire project proved to be expensive and unsustainable. The NPS page says that the canal was only usable one to two months a year, and the tolls collected from ships during that time were not enough to keep the canal running. Ultimately the entire enterprise was handed over to Maryland in 1828 and the town of Matildaville was abandoned. It’s tough on these streets canals.

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There’s plenty of picnic tables available at Great Falls Park, so pack a lunch if you like, but be aware that there’s no trash cans in the park so you’ll need to take your trash with you. Pack In, Pack Out.

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How cool is this tree? It’s circled with years and years worth of carved graffiti. I mean, don’t add to it, technically this is a travesty, but since it’s all already there, you might as well look at it and admire how neat it looks.

Dogs and strollers are welcome at Great Falls Park, so bring them if you like! Wear good walking shoes. I want to believe this is obvious but I saw a girl lingering around the Visitor’s Center wearing heeled booties and a leather jacket and a clutch, either unwilling or unable to engage in any activity within the park due to her attire. I actually wonder about that girl. Did the people she was riding with completely mislead her as to what Great Falls Park was? Did they say they were going to the mall and then detour to the national park? Life is full of mysteries. Some questions have no answers. Wear your boots or walking shoes.

Make a day of it:

Going back down Georgetown Pike toward the village of Great Falls, you can stop at Grange Playground and let the kids do some climbing, or grab a cone at Great Falls Creamery. Going up Georgetown Pike another 8 or so miles will deposit you at Clemyjontri Park, one of the best playgrounds in the area, designed to be fully inclusive for people of all abilities.

Loudoun Ballet Company Presents The Nutcracker

Where: Dominion High School, Sterling, VA
When: December 18, 19, 20, 2015

Somehow, I get mail from The Kennedy Center, personally addressed to me, indicating I am a “Friend of the Arts.” While I like to think this is true (I like art!), I must admit that I am a person who has seen every single episode of every franchise of the Real Housewives since 2007. I have “favorite” episodes of COPS. And I am 30 years old this year and had never seen a live performance of The Nutcracker, until I took my daughter to Loudoun Ballet’s December 19th afternoon performance. So while I may be a “Friend of the Arts,” it’s only in a very loose way. I am an acquaintance of the arts. I am The Arts’ co-worker’s sister-in-law.

Nevertheless, I like to think I can appreciate art when I see it, and art is the only way I can describe Loudoun Ballet’s performance of The Nutcracker. It was wonderfully done. For two hours, I was no longer in a high school auditorium in suburban Virginia. I was at the Stahlbaum’s Christmas party. I was in the midst of a great battle between mice and men; I was in the Land of Snow watching snowflakes dance, and the Kingdom of Sweets. The whole thing was enchanting. Save a few guest performers, the entire cast of Loudoun Ballet’s production is made up of local children, the oldest being seniors in high school. It can be hard to reconcile this with how professionally they dance. These are young people, and they perform so well!

I have a theory that humans derive a specific pleasure from watching people who are good at something do that thing and enjoy doing it. It’s why we all love the Olympics so much- we have the opportunity to watch these monumental athletes perform at the very limit of their capabilities. They excel at it, and they enjoy doing it, and something about that elixir particularly appeals to the rest of us as spectators. We can’t help but be in awe. I think something like this happens with ballet as well. These dancers have spent years getting to the point of being able to dance so well, and they make it look so effortless. They bound, they glide, they bop and twirl and you know it is the opposite of easy, but they seem to do it so naturally.

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The Prima Ballerinas in our performance were a vision. Nancy Etro as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Meghan Walther as the Snow Queen were the stuff of dreams for my little 6 year old, who could hardly believe she was seeing someone so beautiful in real life. They literally sparkled.

Although the two Prima Ballerinas were stunners, each dancer in this performance was a delight to watch. The scampering mice were adorable. The tiny Bon Bons were precious. The Arabian dancers were mind-blowingly agile and had some of the most impressive moves in the show, the kind that makes you go, “How do they DO that!?” The duel between the Mouse King and the Nutcracker was lightning-fast, intense, dark. As a special nod to the new Star Wars movie dominating uh, the world, right now, the Mouse King and the Nutcracker, who traditionally fight only using ballet, suddenly wielded light sabers to do battle. I truly appreciated this little thrill- it was a wonderful way to make a traditional ballet feel new, fresh, and surprising. It was a treat.

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At intermission, the man sitting in front of us turned around and told my daughter “I love your reactions.” The ballet was so well done that the story became real for her. We have The Nutcracker book at home and for weeks leading up to the performance she would pore over the pictures, ask me to read parts of the story to her, memorize what took place in each scene. She took great excitement in watching the story come to life on stage right in front of her. The Christmas tree is bigger! There’s the Mouse King! THERE’S LIGHT SABERS. I have bided my time for years, waiting until I felt she was just the right age to go to The Nutcracker and enjoy it. I believe six was the perfect age. She picked out a fancy dress weeks ago and we both got dressed together and went and took in a show together, just the two of us. I hope it was a very special memory for her. It was for me.

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If you’re reading this today, Loudoun Ballet has two performances left in this production run- today (December 20) at 2:30 pm and at 6:30 pm. Tickets are available for purchase at the door for $30, as are flowers to present your favorite ballerina after the show, when they are available for meet and greets and autographs. There’s also a table full of baked Christmas goodies for a snack at intermission, and ornaments available for sale. The full run time of the show including intermission is around 2 hours. I cannot encourage you enough to go see this wonderful performance done by talented local children. From one budding Friend of the Arts to another- this is a show that you should not miss. I look forward to making Loudoun Ballet’s Nutcracker a tradition with my daughters for years to come.

Brava to everyone involved! You danced a dream.

The Ritz-Carlton: Teddy Bear Tea

Where: 1250 South Hayes St., Arlington, VA
When: Saturdays and Sundays from 2:30-4:30 pm; price varies depending on service chosen

One of the best parts about having kids is the ability to create new beloved traditions with them. As soon as I found out our first child was a girl, I began daydreaming about all the fun things we would one day do, one of those being a traditional afternoon tea. This year was the year- she became obsessed with the whole notion and concept and ritual of tea parties, and I decided it was time to visit The Ritz-Carlton for their afternoon tea. 

This event was approached with nothing short of serious planning and preparation. We waited until my sister would be in town so she could come along, and invited a friend from school- whose mother accepted the invitation on her behalf and said, “I’ve been waiting to take her to tea at the Ritz since she was born!” proving that some things are just universal among mothers of girls. (She graciously allowed us to have the honor of taking her to first tea knowing how much her daughter would enjoy going with a friend.) We wore fancy dresses. We practiced our perfect table manners. In short, I wanted the girls to feel this event was Special.

The Fyve Restaurant and Lounge at The Ritz in Pentagon City does a fabulous job of putting on an elegant and beautiful afternoon tea service that caters to adults and children. My sister and I ordered the traditional afternoon sea service which came with a pot of tea for each of us, and a tray stacked with treats- scones, tea sandwiches, pastries, clotted cream and jam. My sister said she felt like she was in Harry Potter and then we started doing boneheaded things like saying “Accio, scone” just to further the illusion we were at Hogwarts. Very mature.

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The girls got the children’s Teddy Bear Tea, which comes with a pot of hot chocolate and a separate serving caddy with teddy bear-shaped treats- edible-gold dusted chocolate bears, sandwiches cut in the shape of teddy bears, and teddy bear chocolate chip cookies. It was perfectly precious- so cute you could hardly stand to eat it. (But of course we did, and it was all delicious.)

 

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We attended our tea in the spring, just before Easter, but I am posting about it now because the Christmas season is about magic-in whatever shape or form you believe it is found. For some it is found in a manger, in the story of a birth that changed humanity. For some it is found simply in the cozy togetherness that the season encourages; of huddling by a fire, of decorating a tree, of finding that perfect present. And for many, the magic can be found in traditions- the reassuring promise that this event will happen over and over again many times, each time unique, but as special as the others.

That first “grown up” afternoon tea holds the magic that I think Christmas represents. I will always remember the proud smiles the girls wore as they walked through the mall to reach the entrance to The Ritz and people complimented them on their “going to tea” outfits, and the careful, gentle way they held their teacups to sip at tea like they’d always pretended with their plastic tea sets. If you’re looking for a new tradition to start with your kids at Christmastime, I can think of nothing better than afternoon tea at The Ritz-Carlton.

This is it. Don’t get scared now.

It’s hard to believe but the Christmas season has crested the hump and it’s a downhill slide to Christmas day. With Christmas coming in just 11 days (!!!), there’s still lots to do, but very little time in which to do it.

It’s time to rally. There’s still so much to see and do before the season is over.

Head to Downtown Purcellville: 

I’ve written before about how Purcellville is my favorite little small town in Northern Virginia. You simply must make a trip there before the holidays are over. Main Street Purcellville is currently a real-life version of those cute little Christmas villages that people set up on tables in their homes.

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This is the curious and delightful Christmas Shop located in the Purcellville Marketplace- a labyrinth of Christmas-themed rooms filled with all manner of holiday decor.

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9ad0e011-712f-4dda-b4fd-32541c5e5798_zpsgxdov7zbWe popped into Catoctin Creek Distillery on Sunday afternoon to do some Christmas shopping- a stunning bottle of their Distiller’s Reserve 92-proof Roundstone Rye. The crew has created a menu of festive holiday cocktails to enjoy while you’re there!

Write your Christmas cards, for crying out loud:

And then send me one because I’ve so far only received three this year so far! I finally got around to doing mine this weekend, with my usual glass of wine, which I find keeps things interesting. The first cards in the stack are your usual “Our fondest wishes for a very Merry Christmas and a happy New Year” and then somewhere toward the middle they get little more exuberant, with pledges of undying affection and vague promises to do family vacations together each summer.

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Host a cookie decorating party for 13 children:

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Or, if you treasure peace, quiet, and orderliness, don’t!

Find a Gingerbread House done by people who aren’t terrible at them like you and I are:

The Gingerbread Village at the Hyatt in Reston Town Center- Every year, the Hyatt Regency Reston puts on a gingerbread village display that is free for all to come and visit (it is not necessary to be staying at the hotel to pop in and peek at the gingerbread village!). Grab a Peppermint Mocha from the lobby Starbucks and head down to the Ice Skating Pavilion, where you can either rent a pair of skates and take a spin, or, if you’re from the south and are not designed to participate in activities involving ice (ahem), stand off to the side and watch everyone else glide around effortlessly. The pavilion is lit with Christmas lights and it all feels so festive and traditional in a very Norman Rockwell way. And we need all the Christmas spirit boosters we can get this year since it is currently warmer in Northern Virginia than it is in Los Angeles.

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Sweetz Bakery in Leesburg currently has a gingerbread village on display as well that is so intricate, so detailed, so excruciatingly perfect that your innate feelings of gingerbread inadequacy will bloom and then wither in its presence. Oh, is that a pretzel twist balcony railing? A peppermint swizzle stick colonnade? A porch topiary made of icing? My daughter felt it necessary to point out to me, as if I didn’t already know, “None of our gingerbread houses ever look like that.” Yeah, well, we’re not magicians, are we?

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Go see the Nutcracker:

My oldest and I will be dressing up in fancy dresses and taking in the 2:30 viewing of Loudoun Ballet Company’s Nutcracker at Dominion High School this Saturday, 12/19. Tickets are still on sale through the website until December 16; after that, they will be available for purchase at a higher price at the door before showtime. My BFF’s at Certifikid (can I call them that? They don’t know me…) have several deals right now for local Nutcracker performances including the “Nutracker in a Nutshell,” for small children and husbands, Nutcracker at the Warner Theater, and the Nutcracker presented by the Maryland Youth Ballet.

Visit Santa: 

Santa is everywhere. I have heard that the Mazza Gallerie and Tyson’s Corner Center Santa setups are particularly nice. We found him at a Frozen-themed setup last year (what WASN’T Frozen-themed last year?) at Fair Oaks Mall, and he pops up here and there for breakfasts and brunches all the time, with the next Breakfast with Santa being held at Whole Foods Ashburn this Saturday, 12/19, from 9 am to 11 am (pre-registration required and found here).

Hang out with Aladdin: 

The story goes that in 1787, George Washington had a camel visit Mount Vernon for Christmas, and so now Mount Vernon makes sure Aladdin the Camel is there at Christmas in the spirit of tradition. Tickets to Christmas at Mount Vernon include a house tour, access to the grounds, a visit with Aladdin, and if you’re there this Friday or Saturday, a fireworks show over the Potomac River.

Bull Run Festival of Lights

Where: 7700 Bull Run Dr., Centerville, VA
When: Open 7 days a week, 5:30-9:30 pm (weekdays), 5:30-10 pm (weekends) until January 3, 2016. Tickets are sold on a per car basis; price varies based on day and time of the month.

Bull Run Festival of Lights is a special activity for my family. In 2012, I texted my friend Tracy, one of the first friends I made when we moved to Virginia in 2011, and asked her did she want to bring her son and ride with me and my daughter to go to Bull Run Festival of Lights. My husband was out of town on a month-long business trip, and I was lonely and wanted a friend to share some Christmas spirit with. She texted back that she would love to come, as long as her mother could come as well.

That Christmas, Tracy’s mother, Miss Peggy, was undergoing treatment for recently diagnosed pancreatic cancer. Miss Peggy was a feisty, active, indomitable Southern woman- one of a particular breed that grew up in the vestiges of the Old South during the hardscrabble years following the Depression. Strong, tough, but caring and generous. Tracy’s sister had died of pancreatic cancer several years before, and so Miss Peggy’s diagnosis came with forgone conclusion: a brutal fight followed in short time by a death that would come all too soon for her and her family.

At this point in the year, Miss Peggy had moved into Tracy’s home due to no longer being able to care for herself alone at her home near Richmond. She was undergoing chemotherapy and drug treatment, but was still able to get around from time to time. So I said of course Miss Peggy could come with us. We spent a few minutes gingerly helping her up into the high front seat of my SUV and Tracy crammed in the backseat between two toddlers and their carseats and off we went.

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Warning: the pictures in this post are not great. It’s  hard enough to get good pictures of Christmas lights, let alone from a moving vehicle!

I remember being keenly mindful that year as we drove through the light display that this would be Miss Peggy’s last Christmas. Her last holiday with her family, with her daughter and youngest grandson. Her last holiday to drive through and marvel at Christmas lights.

Miss Peggy died in February of 2013, less than two months after our trip through Bull Run Festival of Lights. That outing would mark one of the final times she was well and strong enough to enter a car for any reason, or even to leave the house at all. It was one of the last times that Miss Peggy was herself. In December of 2013, my newborn infant daughter took Miss Peggy’s place in the car for our trip through the Bull Run Festival of Lights. People we love come, and they go. Time marches on.

In the years since, I have never driven through Bull Run Festival of Lights without thinking of Miss Peggy chattering away in the passenger seat beside me. Her presence, when she was here, was so great that her absence since has never gone unnoticed.

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There is one specific turn in the course that always brings her memory flooding back to me. It’s as you round a corner to the Winter Wonderland, where lights mimicking falling snow drip around you as you drive through a tunnel of trees. This one portion of the course feels separate, removed from anything else. In the quiet hush of this peaceful little tunnel, it is possible to reflect on the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future. You can sit, reverential in the silence, and say a thank you for what was, what is, what will one day be. It’s just Christmas lights. I know that. But there is a small piece of magic in that tree tunnel for me. There is one portion of memory and gratefulness that exists only in that tunnel. In the lights of that part of Bull Run Park, there is Miss Peggy, alive, happy, here. Tracy is in the backseat with two boisterous toddlers, hollering Christmas songs at the top of their lungs- the toddlers long gone, replaced by gangly elementary schoolers. There is the first Christmas with our second daughter tucked snugly in the backseat with our first daughter. There is the babble and giggle of two little girls squealing over lights. There is the endless possibility of what Christmases to come will be and look like.

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How beautiful it all was. How beautiful it is. How beautiful it will be.


 

With the holiday weekends being jam-packed with parties and special activities, we keep Bull Run Festival of Lights special each year by always doing it on a weeknight. We go out to dinner beforehand, take a trip through the park, and are home by 8 pm for bedtime. Stretching the holiday season to include weeknight activities is a great way to squeeze in as many seasonal activities as possible in one short, busy month. As a bonus, weeknights at Bull Run are a) cheaper and b) less busy.

Bonus tip: be a pal- when going through the park, turn your car’s headlights off! The path is well lit and easy to navigate with your headlights off. This makes the lights more visible and vibrant, and is very appreciated by the cars ahead of you!

The 2015 NOVAdventuring Buy Local Gift Guide

Okay, friends. If, like me, you refuse to leave the Thanksgiving table to participate in the goat herding that is Black Friday, and got so frustrated with Target’s website fiasco on Cyber Monday that you canceled half your order in a (possibly ill-advised) conniption, and now you need gift ideas for your many beloved family and friends, look no further: I am here with some suggestions for you, all of which come from our very own local community. It’s kind of like Oprah’s Favorite Things list except everything on it is way less expensive and I’m not giving away any of it. MERRY CHRISTMAS.

There’s so many fantastic products being put out by talented individuals right where we live that I think you’ll be able to go through the list and find something for everyone, even that tough-to-buy-for person whose gift stumps and challenges you every year. Or even yourself! Let’s get to it, shall we?

Edibles and Comestibles

(I know that means the same thing, but it sounds catchy.)

Whiskey from Catoctin Creek Distillery – This is in fact what I’ll be getting my dad for Christmas. In a radical personality shift that threw me and my sister for a loop, he recently renounced beer, his beverage of choice for… my whole life, and has taken to sipping a glass of whiskey in the evenings. I have a theory it’s because he finally moved back to the south last year and now has a covered porch and is becoming the refined Southern gentleman he was always destined to be. He might name his house next.

Anyway- for the whiskey lover in your life, you can’t beat what Catoctin Creek is putting out- award-winning whiskeys made right here in Loudoun County. And the names! There’s Rabble Rouser, a rye whiskey distilled at a lower proof which allows some more of its wildness to shine through. There’s Mosby’s Spirit, named for the indomitable John Mosby, whom I have written about before. For a good, solid, reliable whiskey, you can’t go wrong with Catoctin Creek’s Roundstone Rye.

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Price: Varieties range from $35-$85
Where to Find: At Catoctin Creek Distillery in Purcellville, any ABC store in Virginia, and online with nationwide shipping (depending on the state) via Weygandt Wines 

Shuman’s Jelly Cake- I first heard about this Alexandria legend last year and promptly put in my order for one of these famous cakes for our Christmas dinner dessert. Still made using the original family recipe, this cake is made up of three thin layers of pound cake separated by homemade red currant jelly, topped with a generous dusting of powdered sugar, and cut into diamonds. (And yes, it must be cut into diamonds- somehow, the diamond shape only makes the cake better. Shuman’s Bakery includes a helpful video to show you how it’s done.) It melts in your mouth. It’s wonderful with coffee for breakfast, with wine for dessert, or alone in the middle of the night, standing over your kitchen island in the dark like a jackal. (I speak from extensive experience). It’s festive, it’s unique, it’s just… special. My order is already placed for another jelly cake for this year’s Christmas dinner.

Price: $32
Where to Find: If you’re local, pickup is free at Alexandria Cupcake (1022 King St., Alexandria, VA). Simply select the date you need your jelly cake and it will be ready for pickup at the shop. If you need your jelly cake shipped, Shuman’s will ship for $10.

Virginia wine– We live in one of the most vibrant, unique winemaking regions in the country, and if I do say so myself, having sampled it extensively, Virginia wine is darn good. With over 80 wineries and vineyards in the Northern Virginia Wine Region, the varieties are endless. The petit manseng grape is special to this region, but viognier is Virginia’s official “state grape.” That being said, there are excellent appellations of nearly every grape to be found at local vineyards. If you can’t make the trek out to one of our local wineries, check the Virginia wine section at your local grocery store or ABC store. In particular, I like Barboursville Pinot Grigio (Charlottesville), Wild Boar Sauvignon Blanc (Stone Tower Winery), Wild Boar Sanglier Noble blend (Stone Tower Winery), Rose of Cabernet Franc (Maggie Malick Wine Caves), and Vidal Blanc (Lost Creek Winery).

Creamed Honey from Holy Cross Abbey, Berryville, VA- Located in Berryville, the Trappist monks at Holy Cross Abbey live a life of strict religious obedience and observance… and treat-making on the side. The Monastery Bakery, run by the monks themselves, puts out delicious treats such as truffles, fruitcake, and our personal favorite, creamed honey. My father in law adores honey, and I discovered the creamed honey made by the monks at Holy Cross Abbey at a farmstand set up one day at Frying Pan Park. The honey made by the monks at Holy Cross has a creamy, almost frosting-like consistency- thick, spreadable, luxurious. In addition to plain honey, the Monastery Bakery offers flavored creamed honeys- lemon was my personal favorite, and what I bought for my father in law.

Price: $25.95 for four 10 oz. tubs of honey
Where to Find: Online ordering is available here; if you’re local, you can visit the Holy Cross Abbey gift shop (901 Cool Spring Ln., Berryville, VA) to purchase individual tubs of honey and other goods, such as fruitcake, that the monks are unable to ship.

For the Home

NVRPA Christmas tree ornaments– Starting in 2012, Northern Virginia Regional Parks Authority began creating annual commemorative ornaments for their holiday light installations at Bull Run Festival of Lights and Meadowlark Winter Walk of Lights. Each ornament represents a display at these light shows, and are a beautiful way to commemorate family holiday traditions.

Price: $16
Where to Find: Online at the NVRPA store

Habitat: The Field Guide to Decorating, by Lauren Liess- Local interior design genius Lauren Liess, based out of Great Falls, has become a rising star in the interior design world. You may be familiar with the house that put her on the map- the innovatively designed and decorated black house that revealed her to be daring, different, and gutsy. With an eye for botanicals and nature-inspired textiles and themes, Lauren’s visions are clean, fresh, and elegant. Her book, Habitat: The Field Guide to Decorating, released just this October, offers advice and tips for home decorators seeking inspiration for their own homes. (Lauren’s blog, Pure Style Home, is a delightful read in and of itself- open, candid, warm, Lauren is a charming narrator of life with four kids, a thriving design business, and ongoing home renovations.)

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Price: Signed copies are $35 through Lauren’s website; unsigned copies are $25
Where to Find: Signed copies are available to order here, via Lauren’s website; Amazon and Barnes and Noble are authorized retailers.

K&S Pewter, Round Hill, VA- I recently attended Stone Tower Winery’s second Holiday Market and discovered the gorgeous handcrafted pewter pieces created by husband and wife team Stuart and Karen Helble. K&S Pewter have nursery cups, monogrammed pins, candle holders, bookmarks, and ornaments for sale- all created by hand. The ornaments caught my eye and I bought four, all representing something special to my family- a unicorn for my unicorn-obsessed 6 year old, an apple to represent my oldest starting kindergarten and me beginning my Masters in Education, an ornament in the shape of Virginia for our beloved state, a peanut for our home state of Georgia.

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With over 400 original ornament designs, I’m confident anyone could find an ornament from this collection that is meaningful, nostalgic, and looks beautiful on the Christmas tree. The nursery cups would be perfect as a gift for a special baby in your life, and the chambersticks would look lovely on a mantel on dining room table.

Price: $5 for ornaments; other pieces vary
Where to Find: Email kspewter@aol.com to place an order; Mr. and Mrs. Helble frequently have tables at local art fairs and shows, and a limited selection of their pieces is available in their etsy shop. 

Giving

Donation to Loudoun Interfaith Relief– For the person in your life who has enough stuff, consider making a donation in their name to Loudoun Interfaith Relief. I volunteer at this worthy organization several times a month and cannot tell you what important work they are doing. Loudoun County families are able to visit LIR and receive 3 days of food per person in their family per visit. We are lucky enough to receive food donations from many local grocers, farmers, retailers, and citizens, but it becomes necessary at times for LIR to purchase food as well to fill the shelves with healthy, nutritious items to give our families. This is where your donation becomes valuable. A donation may provide an extra day of meals for families whose kids are home from school for the holidays and not receiving breakfast and lunch at school as usual. Your donation may provide Christmas dinner for a family in need.

Price: At your discretion
Where to find: Online at this link; LIR will send a card to your chosen donor letting them know a donation has been made in their name.

Experiences

Afternoon tea, Oatlands Plantation-  Our distinctive, buttercup yellow Oatlands Plantation home is a Loudoun County icon. Traditional afternoon tea is served at Oatlands several times a month, including special themed teas (including a Teddy Bear Tea upcoming on the 19th!). Treat yourself and someone special to an afternoon of tea, scones, sandwiches, and exploring the beautiful grounds of Oatlands. 

Price: $28.95 per person
Where to find: Information is found here; reservations made be made by phone by calling 703-777-3174.

Fan Season Pass, Great Country Farms-  The gift that keeps on giving! Give the gift of unlimited visits to Great Country Farms for the April-November season. This includes all special events and festivals as well. I’ve written before about my love for Great Country Farms and believe me, it is a love all parents of young children share. This gift will provide lifelong memories. It’s the gift of time, of adventure, of togetherness.

Price: $149 for a family of up to six members
Where to find: Membership can be purchased online here

Any other local businesses or organizations you can suggest this holiday season? Feel free to let me know in the comments!

ICE! At Gaylord National Harbor

Where: 201 Waterfront St, Oxon Hill, MD
When: Open daily until January 3, 2016; hours vary depending on day/week. Tickets during peak times (weekends and the two weeks closest to Christmas) are $35 for adults, $28 for kids 3-12, and kids under 3 are free.

ICE! is cold. Should this seem obvious? I mean, I don’t know how to explain it (perhaps because the language on the website says the temperature is kept at, and I quote, “a chilly 9 degrees”), but we did not quite realize *just how cold* ICE! was going to be. I believe we were conjuring visions of a brisk coolness, a pleasant sort of “I can see my breath in this building!” chill. Oh no. You feel 9 degrees down in your bones. Down in the deepest part of your heart that can only be touched by things like when Thomas Jay dies looking for Veda’s ring in My Girl. In that place- you will feel those 9 degrees.

Luckily, ICE! is so darn impressive you won’t much mind.

This was our first year attending ICE!- in 2013 we had a newborn, and last year she was only just one, so far too young to go, but this year, with a 6 year old a 2 year old, we thought it was time to give ICE! a go. The great thing about ICE! is that you could do it every year because the theme changes- last year was Frosty the Snowman if I recall correctly, and this year’s theme was Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, featuring characters and scenes from the 1970 Rankin-Bass Christmas special Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. (If they ever do a Home Alone themed ICE! I am going to die on the spot- praying over a Stouffer’s Mac and Cheese for that happen right now.)

If you’ve seen the movie, all the characters and scenes will be familiar to you. In fact, you should watch it before you go, just to freshen up. It will probably be on ABC Family’s 25 Days of Christmas about 32 times this month, along with my eternal personal favorite, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Upon entering, you are instructed in stern tones not to lick, touch, or sit on the ice. I had to forcibly desist from indulging the urge to touch it because they told me not to touch it.

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Baby Claus being delivered to Mr. and Mrs. Kringle

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Sombertown, ruled by Burgermeister Meisterburger, toyless, with Kris Kringle giving Miss Jessica a china doll

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Kris Kringle and the Winter Warlock

Once you’ve made your way through the seven Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town themed rooms, you end up in a massive room with ICE SLIDES. I repeat, ice slides. You walk up and then zip on down like a vodka shooter in an ice luge. Wheeeee!

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There’s a lot going on in ICE! If you can stand the cold for very long, like maybe if you’re not from Georgia and find anything under about 40 degrees unbearable, you could easily go through 2-3 times to fully see everything.

At the end of the display, just before you emerge from the frozen indoor tundra, there is the most beautiful and serene Nativity scene, carved from crystal clear ice, with an illumination and narration show taking place. It was such an unexpected surprise after all the color and whimsy of the main ICE! display. Somehow, I don’t know how, maybe because everyone else is back in Santa’s Toy Factory ping -ponging down ice slides, this room is much less crowded than every other room in the exhibit, which gives it a quiet, reverential air. Well, it was something!

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Just because you’ve finished ICE! doesn’t mean you’re nearly done with the Christmas on the Potomac experience. Just inside the doors of the Village of the North Pole is a carousel and a gingerbread decorating workshop. Inside the hotel itself is a small train (the Potomac Express) that children can take a ride on, a Santa to visit, and an Elf on the Shelf scavenger hunt. We had to go during the day in order to accommodate our two year old, but if you’re lucky enough to be at the Gaylord in the evening, there’s a nightly light show at 6, 7, 8, and 9 pm every night that features indoor snow and a 65 foot hanging illuminated Christmas tree

Handy tips: 

-Dress warmly! ICE! provides mandatory blue coats that are meant to both keep you warm and keep you dry, but any appendages that will be exposed would do well to be covered, so bring hats and mittens as well.

-No strollers are allowed inside the ICE! exhibit.

-Visitors to ICE! are eligible for reduced parking at the Gaylord for the event; parking in the self-park lot at the Gaylord is just $13 for four hours and can be purchased in advanced via this link. 

Make a day of it:

There’s tons to do and see down at National Harbor! The weather is really weird this month and it was a balmy 60 degrees or so the day we were there, so we were able to walk around the Harbor and enjoy the day after our visit to ICE!

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If coming to National Harbor is a bit of a trek for you, consider taking a ride on the Capital Wheel while you’re visiting! My family did this last summer and it was a big hit with my 5 year old, who had never been in “such a huge Ferris Wheel.”

The Harbor Christmas tree is up right now as well:

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Now, if you will, please join me in fervent hope that next year’s ICE! features Kevin McAllister, the Wet Bandits, and Little Nero’s Pizza.

U.S. Botanic Gardens: Season’s Greenings

Where: 100 Maryland Ave. SW, Washington, DC (right near the Capitol)
When: 10 am- 5 pm, daily until January 3, 2016

I just spent a whopping $113.80 on three tickets to Gaylord National Harbor’s ICE! display for this Sunday, so to assuage that nice kick my pocketbook just took, let’s talk about something that’s wonderfully, gloriously FREE to do this holiday season.

This year is the NOVAdventuring family’s fifth Christmas season living in this area, and there are still local Christmas activities we haven’t done yet. There’s so much going on and there’s only so many weekends in which to cram fun things. One Christmas display we had not yet paid a visit to is the U.S. Botanic Garden’s annual Christmas display, Season’s Greenings, which we decided to visit the weekend after Thanksgiving since we had to take my sister back to National for a flight home and would be nearby anyway. The bad part about squeezing in a trip before an airport run: we didn’t have nearly enough time to wait in the long line to see the model train exhibit, Pollination Station. Alas. One to save for our sixth Christmas, I suppose!

Season’s Greenings is a true show in artistry, with all the local beloved monuments and buildings represented in the form of lush vegetation. The Museum of the American Indian was made out of toadstools and other fungi! The Jefferson Monument appeared to be carved from a pumpkin! (Or an apple?)

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We loved walking through the displays, recognizing each building and trying to guess from which materials it was created.

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My personal favorite, in life and in recreation, is the Washington Monument, so regal and scepter-like:

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Not to be outdone, the Capitol has a fountain:

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If, like us, you don’t have the time (or the patience, I’m not judging) to wait in the long line for Pollination Station, you’ll still get plenty of holiday enjoyment out of the main Conservatory display.

Tucked into one corner of the desert room is a Bonus Tree! I have these in my house as well, and they’re like fun little surprises- here’s the main tree, beautiful and fancy, perfectly lovely if a little stuffy, and then over here is a Bonus Tree, an extra thing thrown up with fun ornaments. My own Bonus Tree resides in the kitchen, and it’s crammed with homemade ornaments and leans a bit too much to the right. My children infinitely prefer it to the Fancy Tree in the living room covered with German glass ornaments, which they are prohibited from even looking at too hard in case their stare causes something to break. Bonus Trees are the Miss Congeniality to the fancy trees’ Miss America.

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There she is- frizzy haired, haphazard, but fun. I strongly identify with this tree.

But of course, Miss America is Miss America for a reason. The U.S. Botanic Garden’s Miss America tree resides in the West Gallery, and is fully botanical themed, with butterflies and hummingbird ornaments:

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What a tall drink of water! What a showboat! Perhaps some of you personally identify with this tree. You probably have a nice blowout and long legs.

My currently-train-obsessed two year old loved the Thomas the Train zooming around the base of the tree and we spent oh, maybe twenty minutes in the West Gallery simply waiting for Thomas’ goofy face to make its way around the tree toward us several thousand times.

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Make a Day of It:

Since you’re already nearby, a visit to the Capitol Tree and the Museum of the American Indian would nicely round out your visit to the U.S. Botanic Garden. The Museum of the American Indian’s Mitsitam Cafe is actually award-winning with cuisine inspired by Native American foods and has its own website separate from the museum itself.

We parked in the nearby Capital Gallery garage located less than half a mile away at 600 Maryland Avenue SW. A straight line walk gets you right to the U.S. Botanic Garden and Capitol Ellipse, easy as pie.