A chill is in the air, but that doesn’t mean it’s time to hibernate. Go for a hike or cozy up around a campfire. Celebrate the season by taking in holiday lights or cutting your own Christmas tree. Or warm up on a cocoa crawl (booze optional). Grab your favorite scarf and get going!
Ice skate outdoors
Lace up your skates and get ready to feel the wind in your hair as you glide on the ice at two of Montgomery County’s outdoor skating rinks. Whether you’re practicing spins and jumps or teetering and clinging to the wall, you’ll have a good time in the frosty air. Take your sweetheart to Rockville Town Square ice rink, with its Christmas tree and holiday music, for your own Rockefeller Center moment, no Amtrak tickets required. Or meet your besties at Silver Spring’s Veterans Plaza ice rink after dark, when the colored lights on the canopy above lend the place a dance club vibe. Don’t worry if you’re a beginner. Both locations offer lessons for all ages. You can rent skates for $6 at either location or bring your own. Online reservations are required at the Silver Spring location and highly recommended in Rockville. Tickets are $10-$11 in Silver Spring; $10-$13 in Rockville. Both locations are open until 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. With plenty of restaurants and cafes around both locations, you can make it a date and follow your skate sesh with a drink or a bite.
Play in the ‘snow’
Snow is no sure thing in Montgomery County. Last year, most places in the region saw just a dusting of the white stuff. But at Winter City Lights in Olney, snow is guaranteed every night in the form of bubble-based flakes every half hour. The 1.5-mile walk-through holiday light display opens for the season on Nov. 18 and runs through Dec. 30. More than 1 million individual lights make up the show, including a light canopy programmed to twinkle along with music and a 52-foot-tall Christmas tree. There’s also an eight-lane, 15-foot-high snow tubing slide and ax throwing for an extra fee. Tickets start at $31.
Cut your own Christmas tree
Christmas may still be weeks away, but if you want to cut your own tree, you shouldn’t wait until the last minute. For the past few years, tree farms have been selling out—sometimes just two or three weekends after Thanksgiving. In Montgomery County, Butler’s Orchard in Germantown and Naughty Pine Nursery in Dickerson offer cut-your-own Christmas trees.
At Butler’s, you can cut your own Douglas or Canaan fir trees on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays starting Nov. 24. Reservations, available online starting in mid-November, are recommended. Saws are available, but bring your own if you have one. Staff will shake and bale trees, and then tie them securely to your vehicle. Holiday Harvest Days are Wednesdays through Sundays in the Farm Park, where you can choose from a selection of precut trees and play on the park equipment. Expect a visit from Santa at the park on select Saturdays. The farm market also has a custom wreath department.
Naughty Pine Nursery opens Nov. 24 and will have Norway and blue spruce trees and Douglas firs available for DIY-ers to cut on Saturdays and Sundays until Dec. 23. The nursery, which also sells seasoned firewood, provides saws, measuring poles, baling and twine for you to secure your tree to your vehicle.
Christmas Trees 101: A Primer
With its silvery blue hue and symmetrical, narrow pyramidal shape, the blue spruce is an attractive choice, but the National Christmas Tree Association warns that its needles are sharp and can have an unpleasant odor when crushed. The tree is also known for its strong fragrance and moderate needle retention.
The upwardly slanting branches of the Norway spruce make it ideal for holding heavy ornaments and lights. It has a strong aroma and dark green needles, which it tends to shed. But buying it fresh and keeping it watered and away from radiators can help with needle retention.
One of the most popular and widely cultivated Christmas tree varieties, the Douglas fir has soft blue-green needles and a sweet fragrance. Its classic conical shape and strong branches make it perfect for showcasing ornaments. It’s also known for excellent needle retention, making for easy cleanup after the holidays.
Similar in appearance to balsam and Fraser firs, the Canaan fir has rich dark green needles and a classic conical shape. These trees have a milder fragrance and sturdy branches to hold decorations.
Go on a cocoa crawl
How do you like your hot chocolate? Marshmallows or whipped cream? Peppermint or chile powder? Boozy or not? Try a variety of specials at the Takoma Cocoa Crawl from 1-4 p.m. Dec. 16 in Takoma Park. It works just like a pub crawl, but rather than popping in and out of different bars for pints, you stop into various restaurants, cafes and shops for steaming mugs of chocolate. In addition to traditional hot cocoa, expect concoctions such as vegan hot chocolate with almond milk, cane sugar and a touch of hot chile, and adult cocoa spiked with scotch and Drambuie, or mezcal. Businesses provide single-use mugs or to-go cups, so you can take your cocoa and get some holiday shopping done, too. Several shops offer special discounts just for the occasion.
Get toasty by a campfire
Grab your crew and some marshmallows for a winter campfire party. Campfire rings are available to rent year-round in five Montgomery Parks locations: Maydale Nature Classroom in Colesville, Robert C. McDonell Campground in Rockville, Locust Grove Nature Center in Bethesda, Brookside Nature Center in Wheaton, and Black Hill Visitor Center in Boyds. Each location has a different seating situation. Some have wooden or stone benches; others have picnic tables nearby. But each rental comes with wood—no chopping needed. Just BYO kindling, such as small dry sticks and twigs; fire starter; and s’mores supplies, or whatever else your group enjoys roasting on an open fire.
Chill in a tent
The beer is cold, but the tents are warm all winter at Lone Oak Farm Brewing Co. in Olney. Round at the base and pointy on top, the cozy yurt-style tents are decked out with couches, chairs, cushions, rugs, blankets and heaters. Small tents ($132.50) fit up to eight people; large tents ($159) accommodate up to 12. Bring your own food, or order snacks, such as hot dogs, soft pretzels, pizza and mac and cheese from the brewery. A tent, which comes with a private server who will deliver your food and beverages, is all yours for 1 hour, 45 minutes.
See the lights
In addition to Winter City Lights, there are plenty of light shows to see whether you want to walk, drive, run or even cruise on a trolley.
Brookside Gardens’ Garden of Lights takes viewers on a half-mile outdoor walk through dazzling displays set amid the gardens. Be sure to pick up a hot chocolate to keep you warm as you walk (drinks and snacks are available for purchase). Nov. 17 through Dec. 31 (closed Nov. 20-23 and Dec. 24-25); $10 per person; free for children younger than 5.
The Washington D.C. Temple FESTIVAL OF LIGHTS in Kensington offers free admission and runs Nov. 30 through Jan. 1. Walk the grounds and see trees adorned with more than 400,000 bulbs. There are also free nightly musical performances inside the visitors center auditorium. Reserve tickets online.
The Winter Lights Festival at Seneca Creek State Park in Gaithersburg loops through illuminated trees and holiday scenes on a 3.5-mile path. If you want to stay warm, hop into your car, turn on some holiday music and cruise through (Nov. 24 through Dec. 31, closed Dec. 25; $15-$30 per vehicle). You can also enjoy the lights while you work up a sweat during Run Under the Lights, a 5K run and walk through the display (Nov. 18, $40). Another option? Ride an open-air trolley ride at the Sip & Sparkle event on Nov. 19. Stop by the heated tent before or after your ride for wine and cider tastings, food and live music ($30, 21 and older).
The weather might be frightful, but the kitchen at Sur La Table will be warm and cozy, filled with the aroma of buttery pastries or savory braised meats as you brush up on your culinary skills. The shop at Pike & Rose in North Bethesda offers a variety of inspirational in-store cooking classes for individuals (age 14 and older), families (age 7 and older) and “Date Nights,” when you cook with a partner (Valentine’s Day plans done! You’re welcome). The menu is always changing, but look out for classes such as Dinner in Portugal, Handmade Ravioli and The French Pastry Shop. You also can expect themed baking and cooking classes to coincide with various holidays and seasons (think Thanksgiving Remix or Winter Wonderland 3-Layer Cake). The classes, which are led by professional chef instructors, are hands-on, so plan to work and maybe get a bit messy. Most single-time classes range from $59 to $99 per person.
Take a hike
Winter hikes can be quiet, peaceful and invigorating. Not to mention no mosquitoes! The county parks department offers hikes and nature programs for groups of all ages from “Babes in Backpacks” to seniors throughout the season. Go easy on the Champagne and kick off 2024 with a First Day Hike, a Maryland State Parks program that encourages hiking on Jan. 1.
Last year, Patuxent River State Park in Brookeville hosted ranger-led First Day Hikes, and Seneca Creek State Park in Gaithersburg offered a self-guided option. Check the Department of Natural Resources’ website for details on First Day Hikes for 2024.
Teatime at Strathmore
Warm up with a “cuppa” during Afternoon Tea at the Mansion at Strathmore. Teatimes include tea, light lunch fare and musical performances. Each event has a different theme with music and food to match. In December, all teas are holiday themed, including two Charles Dickens Teas and Talks (for adults) and two Mrs. Claus Teas (for kids). February teas include Chinese New Year Teas, Valentine’s Day Teas and South American Teas. Reservations for the winter season, which runs in December and February (the Mansion is closed in January), become available in early November. Call the Tea Reservation Line to book your spot; no online reservations are available, $38.
Tea Reservation Line: 301-581-5108 | strathmore.org/events-tickets/afternoon-tea
Maybe your New Year’s resolution is to learn something new or to pick up a new hobby. If you need some ideas to get started, we’ve got you covered. At WoolWinders in Rockville you can learn to knit and crochet, then take your new skills to the next level and create a full project, such as a hat, sweater or scarf. FiberArt.Studio in Bethesda offers lessons and classes in knitting, crocheting, sewing, embroidering and other fiber crafts. At Glen Echo Park, you can take classes in ceramics, glassblowing, stone carving and silversmithing. Weisser Glass Studio in Kensington offers classes in stained and fused glass and mosaics. Get an early start and you might have some handcrafted gifts ready for the holidays.
The winter season, with Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and Martin Luther King Jr. Day, is full of opportunities to spread kindness. Whether you’re donating food to the needy, raising money for a community arts organization, or making chew toys for shelter animals, there’s a way to lend a hand to nonprofits throughout the county. Don’t know where to start? MoCo360’s Guide to Giving in this issue, starting on page 198, rounds up dozens of nonprofits worthy of your time and cash. Ahead of the holidays, the Montgomery County Holiday Giving Project, organized by the Department of Health and Human Services, works with schools, social workers and a variety of nonprofits, faith-based organizations and local governments to connect needy families with groups that can help. When it comes to supporting community groups, thousands of neighbors walk the walk—or rather run the 10K—at the annual Turkey Chase Charity Race, which raises money for the YMCA Bethesda-Chevy Chase and the Bethesda Chevy Chase Rotary. Each January, the Montgomery County Volunteer Center organizes a Day of Service on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, inviting county residents to participate in service projects at the Bethesda North Marriott Hotel & Conference Center and other sites throughout the county. So why not swap a few hours of Netflix for some community love? Your heart will grow three sizes, and that’s not just from the holiday cookies.
https://moco360.media/2023/10/30/moco360s-2023-guide-to-giving/ | montgomerycountymd.gov/hhs/pacs/holiday-giving.html | turkeychase.com/race/md/bethesda/ymcaturkeychase | montgomerycountymd.gov/volunteercenter/volunteers/mlk.html
Visit an independent book or music store
If you’re shopping for a gift for a hard-to-please person this holiday season, or even if you’re just looking for a place to hang out and warm up, get yourself over to an indie book or record store. Most of these businesses are true labors of love by owners who have a deep and sincere interest in their wares and their customers. At Kensington Row Bookshop, you can find old and new books, as well as literary gifts, games and puzzles. Comic enthusiasts should check out Big Planet Comics in Bethesda, where you can find new and old comic books, graphic novels and manga. Record collectors can peruse the bins of vinyl at Art Sound Language record store in Chevy Chase, D.C., or Analog Market in Silver Spring, which sells records, collectibles, locally made crafts, and Bump ‘n Grind Coffee, so you can get both a caffeine and music fix.
Go ahead, get high. No, not like that. Although recreational use of marijuana did become legal in Maryland in July, we’re talking here about literally—or virtually—gaining altitude. If the weather outside has you climbing the walls, head to an indoor rock-climbing gym, where you can scale rock walls and boulders under the cover of a roof. The county’s newest spot, Sportrock Rio in Gaithersburg, is set to open by the end of the year, boasting 35,000 square feet of climbing, with walls up to 60 feet tall. Movement in Rockville has 38,000 square feet of varied climbing terrain. While it may seem intimidating to newbies, the sport is welcoming even for beginners, with certified staff and coaches providing advice and motivation.
For a different way to venture up into friendly skies, Dream Aero at Westfield Montgomery mall in Bethesda lets you feel what it would be like to pilot a Boeing 737. The flight simulator is designed to look and move like an actual cockpit. Choose a flight route and learn how to take off, climb, maneuver the aircraft, descend and land. Rates start at $195 for up to three people for 30 minutes.
And for those who dream of jumping out of planes instead of flying them, iFLY Montgomery indoor skydiving facility in Gaithersburg is the place to go. You’ll gear up in a flight suit and step into a giant vertical wind tunnel that enables you to fly and float on a column of air—no parachute needed. Rates start at $69.99 per person for two flights, each which lasts about 60 seconds. Discounts are available for multiple flights and/or flyers.
Eventually, the winter weather might have you longing for a summer vacation. But if a trip to Cancun isn’t in your plans, you can still strap on your goggles and make a splash at an indoor pool. The county recreation department runs four indoor pools that are open year-round: the Germantown Indoor Swim Center, the Eunice Kennedy/Sargent Shriver Aquatic Center, the Martin Luther King Jr. Swim Center and the Olney Swim Center. The Germantown, Kennedy/Shriver and Olney pools all have water slides, and all four have fun features like fountains, hot tubs and diving boards or platforms (cannonball!). The Gaithersburg Aquatic Center offers a 25-yard main pool with a diving area and adjacent shallow teaching area, and the Rockville Swim & Fitness Center has two indoor pools, plus a whirlpool and sauna. The warm air, smell of chlorine and sound of splashing water might just make you forget that it’s freezing outside.
Here comes Hanukkah
The Jewish “festival of lights” starts at sundown on Dec. 7 this year and lasts eight crazy nights. Traditionally, it’s observed by lighting a menorah, playing dreidel and eating oily foods like latkes (potato pancakes) and jelly doughnuts. Looking to make some new Hanukkah memories? Events such as candle lightings, concerts and even a latke bar are taking place around the community to celebrate the holiday, so put on your yarmulke because here comes Hannukah. Load up on crispy fried goodness at the latke bar during the Spuds and Studs: Latke-Palooza & A Cappella Concert at the Bender JCC of Greater Washington on Dec. 13 ($50). After a reception with heavy hors d’oeuvres and latkes (the “spuds” part), enjoy a performance by New York-based a cappella group Y-Studs (the “studs” part), which is known for its unique take on Jewish music infused with fresh energy and bright harmonies. For a kid-friendly event, the JCC hosts Shabbat: Shabbang Hanukkah Edition ($10 children, $15 adults), which features a Shabbat dinner followed by a reading by author Ilan Stavans of his story “The Mexican Dreidel.”
Stephanie Siegel Burke is a freelance writer and editor specializing in local news, arts, culture and events. She lives in Bethesda with her husband, two children and one dog.
This story appears in the November/December issue of Bethesda Magazine.