ZooLights at the Washington National Zoo makes holidays merry and bright in Cleveland Park

The holiday season brings with it certain annual traditions—shopping at 4 a.m. on Black Friday, drinking eggnog and eating anything pumpkin flavored, joking about bad fruitcake, spending way too much money on travel to visit with family and friends. If you’re doing it right, December means a fair amount of kitsch, too, from ugly sweater parties to that yearly pilgrimage to the massively over-decorated house in the neighborhood.

During my first full holiday season in D.C., I’ve been experiencing a bit of it all. Although I missed the lighting of the National Christmas Tree at the White House, I did brave the crowds in Georgetown during the post-Thanksgiving sales. And just this past weekend, I made it over to the National Zoo for ZooLights, when the park gets decked out for the holidays.

The National Zoo hosts ZooLights from Dec. 14-23, Dec. 26-30 and Jan. 1.

The National Zoo hosts ZooLights from Dec. 14-23, Dec. 26-30 and Jan. 1.

Of course, this is the type of event that could reek of gimmicky sentimentality. But happily, ZooLights walks that fine line of being sweet but not saccharine, of being well done but not taking itself too seriously. It’s quite charming, actually.

For the past six years, the zoo has hosted this after-dark event that’s sponsored by Pepco. Trees and shrubs light up with multicolored bulbs, and creative animal scenes line the walkway through the park. I watched as moving lights showed a gecko’s tongue shooting out to catch an insect and an owl gliding through the air to perch on a branch. The progressive light patterns of the flying bird were particularly impressive, having the effect of stop-motion animation, but in white lights among actual trees. One section along the walkway featured ocean creatures, like a dancing octopus and a fish jumping into the water with a splash.

A gecko catches an insect at ZooLights. “I think the original idea of ZooLights was to enable people to come visit the zoo and see it in a different way than they normally do," said Devin Murphy, communications specialist for Friends of the National Zoo.

A gecko catches an insect at ZooLights. “I think the original idea of ZooLights was to enable people to come visit the zoo and see it in a different way than they normally do,” said Devin Murphy, communications specialist for Friends of the National Zoo.

A few exhibits were open, and I took advantage, first touring the Small Mammal House. Although I steered clear of the mice and rats section, I watched a two-toed sloth clean his tail and a couple of golden lion tamarins leap across tree limbs. A few fluffy meerkats teetered through their habitat area, a sleeping hedgehog snuggled in a nook amid some branches, and a prehensile-tailed porcupine lapped up water from a plastic bowl. A quick trip through the Great Ape House revealed gorillas curled up in beds of hay and hairy orangutans sleeping soundly in their huge enclosures.

Since 2010, ZooLights has been free to the public, and District dwellers seem to be taking advantage. According to Devin Murphy, communications specialist for Friends of the National Zoo, about 130,000 people attended last year. On the Saturday evening when I dropped by, the brick paths were teeming with families, strollers, couples and groups of high schoolers.

ZooLights, which takes six to eight weeks to set up, does offer a few attractions for a nominal fee. For $3, you can careen down Lion/Tiger Hill on a snowless tubing track, or ride on the solar-powered Conservation Carousel, or look at the lights from the National Zoo Choo-Choo.

The train station, where guests can catch a ride on the National Zoo Choo-Choo ($3 per person).

The train station, where guests can catch a ride on the National Zoo Choo-Choo ($3 per person).

ZooLights will be open nightly from 5 to 9 p.m., Dec. 14-23, Dec. 26-30 and Jan. 1.

Miscellaneous seasonal ideas to round out your holiday in Northwest D.C.: If you need music to get you into the holiday spirit, think about checking out the National Cathedral’s “Carols by Candlelight” program on Dec. 23 or 24. Pick up a Christmas tree or wreath at the Whole Foods in Tenleytown, or at the tree lot on the corner of Edmunds Street and Wisconsin Avenue.

The Christmas tree lot on the corner of Edmunds Street and Wisconsin Avenue in Cleveland Park.

The Christmas tree lot on the corner of Edmunds Street and Wisconsin Avenue in Cleveland Park.

If you need to finish checking off people from your gift-giving list, head to the Whole Foods in Glover Park. Local soap company Biggs & Featherbelle sells its bath salts, body scrubs and bar soaps in the store’s entryway, and Maryland-based artist Leslie Brown offers up her eco-friendly jewelry in the Whole Body section, toward the front of the store. And if you are tasked with finding a spot for your company’s holiday party, consider Slate Wine Bar & Bistro, a newly opened mid-Wisconsin Avenue restaurant, with exposed brick and an extensive wine list. That should please the boss.

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