Updated: Dec. 6, 2022 at 7:33 p.m.
The orchestral performances, red ribbons and fresh evergreen pine trees are back out to celebrate Christmas at the Washington National Cathedral after two years of online concerts and sermons.
The Cathedral – located in the upper Northwest, aptly named Cathedral Heights neighborhood – embraces the holiday spirit through a number of orchestral Christmas-themed concerts, services and festive decorations that cover the entire building. After the Cathedral’s doors remained shut from March 2020 to July 2021 and temporarily closed during a COVID surge late last year, people across the District will finally be able to return to hear the booming organ and take in its signature floor-to-ceiling Christmas decorations for the first time since 2019.
“There are very few places in the entire country where you can get a Christmas service that’s quite like this, so we’re praying and lighting candles that the COVID numbers don’t turn south like they did last year,” Kevin Eckstrom, the chief communications officer at the Washington National Cathedral, said.
Eckstrom said starting the week before Christmas, the entire Cathedral is covered in bright red flowers, greens and Christmas wreaths – a tradition that persisted through COVID while services and concerts remained strictly streamed.
“There’s something about a big, sparse, empty cathedral that’s not super warm and inviting,” Eckstrom said. “And so they loved being able to see the flowers and the decorations, even if they were just watching it on TV.”
He said instead of the pews of the Cathedral packing in its usual 2,000-person capacity for the holidays, the gothic building was limited to a few performers and sparse decorations that were no rival to the Cathedral’s typical grandeur.
“The city laws meant that we could only have about 10 people in the building at a time,” he said. “So we were doing Christmas for a completely empty Cathedral, but we did it.”
He said the Cathedral was gearing up for an complete in-person Christmas celebration last year, but after a few events during the week leading up to Christmas, the episcopal bishop of D.C. ordered their doors to close after the omicron variant sent COVID cases soaring.
“They decided to cancel because they didn’t want anybody getting sick at Christmas because they came to the Cathedral,” Eckstrom said.
Eckstrom said the Cathedral pivoted back to online programming after the surge in cases, turning to socially distanced concerts that streamed online for a wider audience ranging from 3,000 to 5,000 people from six continents.
“Because it was online, anybody could come,” he said. “You didn’t have to be in D.C. to go to the Joy of Christmas, you could watch it from California if you wanted. So now we have online options to all of these services.”
Eckstrom said the Cathedral will continue livestreaming services this Christmas, ideal for any students who want to watch the Cathedral’s events but might travel home early. He said the Cathedral added a newsletter called the Christmas Passport this year, where interested people can enter their name and email to receive information about Christmas events at the Cathedral.
“The silver lining of this pandemic is we’re more of a National Cathedral than we’ve ever been before,” Eckstron said. “And COVID caused all of that to happen.”
Eckstrom said even though people opt for online options for other Cathedral events, he still expects the full capacity of 2000 to show up to the Cathedral in person for Christmas.
“People don’t want to give up Christmas,” he said. “It’s a different experience, to watch something at home on your sofa as opposed to being in the room with 2,000 other people. So we are expecting that our Christmas services will be full.”
The Cathedral’s performance of Handel’s Messiah – an iconic 1700s oratorio, a large-scale orchestral composition written for a majestic venue like the Cathedral – will return as one of its signature Christmas events. The booming composition fills the halls of the gothic space, amplifying the music like Handel intended.
“Handel’s Messiah is a Christmas favorite, but it’s a different experience hearing it in a space like this sort of space that Handel wrote it for,” Eckstrom said. “It’s a unique, only in D.C. kind of experience.”
He said the Cathedral will pivot from joyous music for their Blue Christmas event next Tuesday, where one of the Cathedral’s priest associates will lead somber prayer and song. He said the event is meant to bring together people going through hard times during Christmastime to help them cope and share mutual support.
“Maybe they’re not feeling so holly jolly,” he said. “Maybe they’ve lost a loved one or they just are not feeling the Christmas mood or they’re stressed out or whatever it is. So this is an opportunity for people to just kind of come. It’s quiet, it’s more contemplative. And it’s designed to meet people who, this isn’t their favorite time of year when Christmas is splashed around everywhere.”
In the week leading up to Christmas, the Cathedral will focus on biblical music. Eckstrom said the Cathedral will host Lessons & Carols – a recitation of Bible readings and music that tell the story of Christmas by candlelight on Dec. 22 and 24, typically drawing more than 2,000 Cathedral regulars and other D.C. locals.
He said the final events of the Christmas season take place on Christmas Day with Christmas mass in the morning featuring scriptures and hymns that celebrate the holiday. He said in the afternoon, an organ concert on the Cathedral’s famed Grand Organ will play Christmas music in honor of the day.
Eckstrom said the Cathedral’s full slate of Christmas events provides a chance for District natives and tourists alike to experience a one of a kind holiday performance.
“You’ve got people who have family in from out of town, and they want to show them D.C. at its finest,” Eckstrom said. “So they come for Christmas. This is when we throw open the doors as wide as we can. And it’s really an offering to the city and the area.”
This post has been updated to correct the following:
The Hatchet incorrectly reported that the Cathedral will hold two organ concerts on Christmas Day. The Cathedral will hold one organ concert. The Hatchet also incorrectly reported that the Cathedral has a 200-person capacity. The Cathedral has a 2,000-person capacity. We regret these errors.