- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 1, 2009

It seems as if the holidays come earlier and earlier every year. Christmas decorations frequently go up with the jack-o’-lanterns. But the season has officially started now that Santa has passed through Herald Square in New York, and an early Thanksgiving means a longer-than-usual holiday season.

So what should Washingtonians do to fill those extra holiday hours outside the shopping mall?

Many local residents know they can go ice-skating in the Sculpture Garden, check out the National Christmas Tree, or see “The Nutcracker” at the Kennedy Center.

But how about a journey from Neverland to the North Pole, followed by a countdown through the 12 Days of Christmas? We all know Santa Claus takes a sleigh, but did you know he also uses other forms of air transportation when in Maryland?

The region is filled with holiday activities for children, families and grown-ups of which many people are unaware.

The College Park Airport in Maryland, which just celebrated its 100th anniversary, is the world’s oldest continually operating airport. On Saturday, it will be the landing spot for Santa Claus.

“Santa’s been flying into College Park Airport off and on for many years,” said Warren Kasper, director of the College Park Aviation Museum. “We have news clippings of Santa flying into the airport back in the ‘60s and ‘70s.”

Visitors to the museum will be able to watch Santa Claus from the main gallery as he lands on the runway and waves to the crowd. Santa will come into the museum, where children can meet him and have their pictures taken with him. While they wait for their photos, they can decorate a holiday picture frame.

“Depending on weather conditions and the things that can affect flying vehicles, Santa usually arrives around 12:30 [p.m.],” Mr. Kasper said. “During the afternoon, we have holiday-themed aviation crafts and activities.” He pointed out that children can make a reindeer lollipop a tribute to Santa’s other method of air travel.

Switching focus from the air to the ground also can prove beneficial for those seeking holiday adventures. Car travel can provide one of the biggest light shows in the area the Festival of Lights at Bull Run Park in Centreville.

“We have over two and a half miles of [a] drive-through lights show and over 80,000 lights,” said park manager Jill Vanden Heuvel. “Every year we try to add something new.”

The display has been a tradition in the park for 12 years, originally managed by an outside company but taken over by the park operations staff in the past few years, Ms. Vanden Heuvel said.

“We think we’re doing a much better job,” she said. This year, the park has added not only light displays, but a free hayride that “gets the kids out closer to the lights” to an area not visible when driving through the park.

The park staff has been working since Columbus Day to get everything set for the opening of the show, which started Wednesday and runs through Jan. 10.

“We had a crew of up to 15 people working at any one time,” Ms. Vanden Heuvel said. “We got most of the show up in about three weeks, but we’ve been spending the last three weeks just putting in additional things that we’re adding this year and making sure that everything is working.”

In addition to the light show, there also is a village where visitors can spend time around the music-animated Christmas tree, grab a cup of hot chocolate, toast a marshmallow or visit Santa and Mrs. Claus.

“It’s a place where you can stop and make the light show last a little longer,” Ms. Vanden Heuvel said.

For those looking to explore the spiritual side of the season, look no farther than the Washington National Cathedral in Northwest Washington, where holiday events fill the calendar during the month of December.

With everything from a Christmas pageant for children to the singing of Handel’s “Messiah,” the cathedral offers an array of options for families to partake in the Christmas spirit.

For those who would like to experience a grown-up side of Christmas, the cathedral offers “C.S. Lewis for Christmas” on Dec. 20 as part of its regular Sunday Forum series.

It will feature Max McLean, star of the critically acclaimed “The Screwtape Letters,” which will run at the Lansburgh Theatre starting Dec. 16. Mr. McLean said the show is appropriate for “thoughtful junior high or above.”

“Screwtape is essentially the original Grinch who stole Christmas,” Mr. McLean said. “I think the success of the play is that it’s so good at describing the machinations of the spiritual world and that it affects the heart at a very, very deep level,” he said. “And of course, that’s what you do want to do at Christmas.”

• Meredith Hulley is freelance writer and University of Maryland student.

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