Christmas in Washington, DC in the 80s
About This Article
This is a look back at some tourist spots in The District during the 1980s in December. This article is mostly from personal recollections. Hopefully some readers will find this article nostalgic and some readers will find the article an inspiration to make their own future memories. Some things have changed and some things are the same. Tourists to The District should keep in mind this article describes the situation 30 years ago.
One Thanksgiving evening there was a performance of the Nativity play “The Prophesy Fulfilled” at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The Kennedy Center has two theaters, an opera house, and a concert hall. It also has a restaurant. The Kennedy Center is on a bank of the Potomac River which gives visitors a picturesque view and there is a promenade outside the Center which is good for a stroll with the Center on one side and the Potomac River on the other.
George Washington University had performances of The Nutcracker. George Washington University seemed to be having budget troubles putting on The Nutcracker. Lately, The Nutcracker is performed at the Warner Theater with George Washington as the title character.
The big Christmas Season performances in Washington, DC was the play A Christmas Carol at Fords Theater. Fords Theater is restored to look as is did on the night John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. The Theater has a museum in the basement. Since it is reproduction of a mid-19th century theater the seats aren’t comfortable. It is relatively small which improves the theater experience in some plays because of the close proximity between the performers and the audience.
In the 1980s live entertainment and dining in Washington, DC was relatively inexpensive. This made for an affordable night of entertainment in the Capital.
The Old Post Office
The Old Post Office building was completed in 1899. The building escaped demolition because it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. The Old Post Office underwent renovation from 1979-1983. When it reopened it had upscale restaurants, boutiques, and retail kiosks. It also had a large stage. During the Christmas Season it was elaborately decorated and there were seasonal performances on the stage. The building’s design allowed good viewing of these performances.
The renovated Old Post Office didn’t meet expectations. By the end of the 1980s it had the look of a place that was in decline. Now the Old Post Office is home of the Trump International Hotel Washington, DC.
Each Smithsonian museum had some holiday decorations. The National Air & Space Museum had pots of poinsettia plants that were arranged to make a Christmas Tree shape. The Natural History Museum had Christmas decorations in its rotunda. Each year the decorations would have a different theme. The Smithsonian’s Museum of Americana would have the most elaborate of the holiday decorations. The decorations included numerous Christmas trees, each with a different theme.
Many people did their Christmas shopping at the Smithsonian. This made the museum gift shops as crowded as department stores. As with most museum gift shops the items were overpriced.
The White House
In the 1980s during the winter, which wasn’t the peak tourist season, people who wanted to visit the White House only had to stand in line. This was an improvement over the peak tourist season where perspective visitors had to pick up tickets before the tickets ran out, then wait in line to enter the White House. With the White House decorated for the holidays this made the Christmas season the best time to visit the White House. The one drawback was visitors had to wait in line outside in December, which could mean being outside for a long time on a cold day.
Photography was prohibited inside the White House. The holiday decorations were elaborate and each year would have a different holiday theme. Each room had some type of decoration and one room had a Nativity scene. Many rooms had decorated Christmas trees. In 1981 the White House Historical Society started the tradition of an official White House Christmas ornament. One of these ornaments would be hung on the main Christmas tree in the White House. In the early years the White House Historical Society would sell their ornaments out of their office, which is in a row house adjacent to Lafayette Park. The 1980s ornaments were pretty but simple.
On the White House Ellipse there was a giant Menorah. On the Ellipse there was the Pageant of Peace. The Pageant is built around the White House Christmas Tree. On December 18, 1980 the National Christmas Tree and the surrounding trees stayed lit for 417 seconds[i]. Each second represented a day the Iranians held the American hostage. The Americans would be held hostage for 444 days. After their release on January 20, 1981 the White House Christmas Tree was redecorated for the hostages’ return to the United States.
Besides the National Christmas Tree there was a tree, each about 6 feet tall, for each state and U.S. territory. These trees had ornaments representative of the state or territory. There was a Yule fire burning inside a large pit. The Pageant had live reindeer. The decorations seemed to get more elaborate each year. They added live entertainment, that wasn’t part of the official tree lighting ceremony. They also added free hot drinks and treats. At the beginning of the 1980s across from the Ellipse there was a Nativity scene paid for by private donations. This scene included live animals. In 1984 the Supreme Court made the Lynch vs Donnelly decision which allowed Nativity scenes as part of government displays. The 1984 Pageant of Peace included a Nativity display. The Pageant of Peace’s Nativity had plastic figures. The organization that had funded the Nativity near the Ellipse had a small display that year and announced they would no longer have Nativity displays.
[i] President’s Park (White House), 1977-1980 National Christmas Trees, https://www.nps.gov/whho/learn/historyculture/1977-1980-national-christmas-trees.htm#CP_JUMP_2803477, last accessed 12/10/17.