Christmas from the Car

I adore the Christmas season. The decorations, the cookies, the music, the movies…everything. Of course, I also love spending time with family and friends at this time of year, and that is sadly not going to happen the way it usually does. The same goes for some of our traditional outings and activities that don’t lend themselves well to social distancing. Rather than sit around and lament the 2020-ness of the situation, I decided to write a post about some of the fun holiday activities that can be done from the comfort of your car.

Drive-through Light Festivals

The view from our car at Bull Run Festival of Lights

Who doesn’t love meandering through a lit-up winter wonderland? There are plenty of options throughout Virginia that can be explored either on foot or in your vehicle. You can find many of them by clicking here and then scrolling down to the regional lists. Normally, we take an annual stroll through the Meadowlark Winter Walk of Lights just down the road in Vienna, VA. While Meadowlark is definitely taking precautions to support social distancing, we opted for a drive-though option instead this year.

The nearest car-friendly light festival is the Bull Run Festival of Lights, a 2.5 mile driving tour of Bull Run Regional Park in Centreville, VA. The park has been transformed by a bit of Christmas magic, and features lit-up trees, animated scenes, and overhead displays.

Ticket prices vary from $20-30 per car, depending on whether you go on a weeknight or a weekend, and whether you purchase tickets online or on-sight. We went on a Tuesday night and purchased tickets in advance, and it cost us about $25 including the Eventbrite service fee. In addition to the cheaper ticket cost, the other draw of going on a weeknight is a smaller crowd. We did not have to wait in line at all, and our leisurely drive through the park took about ten minutes. While I personally still prefer a walk-through light experience, this was a hit with the family, as well as a fun way to get into the holiday spirit.

Note: The festival is not synched to music – what you hear in the video is my car radio tuned to Christmas songs on 97.1FM, as well as my kiddo humming along.

Drive-in Holiday Movies

Note the time on my radio – one perk of winter drive-in movies is that they start way earlier than they do in the summer.

Drive-in movies are typically a summer phenomenon, but with the pandemic taking a major toll on the economy, more and more movie theaters are finding ways make drive-in movies a year round event. With the holidays upon us, it’s no surprise that some of these locations are showing classic Christmas movies. Since the vast majority of traditional drive-ins in Virginia – which can be found here – are a bit too far from us for an evening outing, we opted for one of the new drive-in experiences being hosted by our local Alamo Drafthouse.

I have been a huge Alamo Drafthouse fan for a number of years. All locations of this chain – including four in Virginia – boast a kitchen and bar with a full menu, which means that you don’t have to choose between dinner and a movie on a date night…back when date nights were a thing. In addition to showing new releases, the Alamo also hosts “movie parties” based on fan favorites, featuring props, themed cocktails, and occasionally the freedom to quote or sing along.

My friends and I had a blast at the Alamo’s Love Actually movie party last year. I also went to a Clueless quote-along a few years ago that was equally entertaining.

For our first drive-in experience at the Alamo, my daughter and I decided to see Elf, one of our favorite Christmas movies. We made sure to bring plenty of blankets and pillows, since it was a chilly night and patrons are not permitted to leave engines on. You are not allowed to bring in outside food with the exception of carryout from neighborhood restaurants. While this is a sweet way to for the theater to support other local businesses, we decided to pre-order a pizza (good, but nothing to rave about) and chocolate chip cookies (amazing…also, one order = three cookies) from the Alamo for the sake of convenience, as our items were delivered directly to our car. For additional rules and regulations, you can read the FAQs here. At $40 for two passengers (not including the cost of food), this is not an inexpensive outing. Still, it was a really fun way to spend an evening, especially if you miss going to the movies and are also looking to spread a little holiday cheer.

Decorated House Drivebys

Ah, the time-honored – and free! – tradition of piling into your car in search of the most decorated neighborhoods and houses. This was one of my absolute favorite Christmas activities as a kid, and with so many people going all out on their decorations this year, it’s one of the few traditions that might have actually gotten better in 2020. If you live in Northern Virginia, Holly’s Tacky Christmas Lights (which is a misnomer, by the way) is a website that takes all of the guesswork out of hunting down the best houses to visit. Most of the homes listed are in Fairfax County, but there is an “outliers” tab that includes houses in Loudoun, Prince William, and even Maryland. The site also features suggested routes based on major roads in the area. We have found so many wonderful gems that we never would have known about, including several in our own backyard. For example, this year we visited 12708 Kettering Dr. in Herndon, and found an incredible yard filled with hand-made, glass-encased interactive displays:

If you don’t live in the Northern Virginia area, or if you want to find decorated houses that are even more off the beaten path, try checking your neighborhood’s conversation threads on Nextdoor. While I don’t always have the patience for more argumentative Nextdoor posts, I have found their holiday light threads to be on point. We found several fabulous Halloween displays this way that we otherwise never would have known about, despite them being right in our own community. If you don’t see an active thread, simply start one yourself.

Luminary-Lit Roads

Paper bags, sand, and tea lights are not particularly Christmassy in isolation, but if you put them all together, you have a positively enchanting Christmas decoration: the luminary. What could possibly be more whimsical than a house that puts out luminaries? An entire luminary-filled neighborhood, of course.

Every year on December 24th, a neighborhood in McLean, Virginia known as McLean Hamlet organizes a community-wide luminary event. All houses are required to line their sidewalks with tiny luminary lanterns, and the effect is positively otherworldly. A coworker who lives in McLean Hamlet – where all of the street names are aptly inspired by Shakespearean characters and settings – first told me about this tradition several years ago, and it is now a much-anticipated part of our annual Christmas Eve celebration.

I am always so focused on the luminaries themselves that I never remember to take any pictures of them, so this shot is one I found on Facebook.

If you live near McLean and would like to see the luminaries on Christmas Eve, try entering this address into your GPS: 7815 Birnam Wood Drive. The address will not only take you to the heart of McLean Hamlet, but you’ll also see this house’s fabulous Christmas light display (it is actually featured on the “Holly’s Tacky Christmas Lights” website that I mentioned previously).

Do you live elsewhere in Virginia but still want to see luminaries on Christmas Eve? My research revealed that the towns of Buchanan and Hamilton have similar traditions, and there are probably others as well.


The Christmas season of 2020 may not be fulfilling all of our hopes and dreams, but there are still plenty of opportunities for festive and socially distanced family fun. Do you have a favorite holiday tradition, or a house or neighborhood that you visit every year? Feel free to share in the comments!

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