Though it's a city more closely associated with party politics than rollicking parties, our nation's capital knows how to celebrate -- especially during the holidays.

Officially, the season kicked off at the beginning of the month with the lighting of the National Christmas Tree. This year's White House holiday theme (a tradition started by Jackie Kennedy in 1961) is "Shine, Give, Share." Unofficially, though, a slew of festive performances, holiday menus and off-the-beaten-path experiences -- many of which are free -- await the D.C.-bound. So, if you've grown tired of miracles on 34th Street, jump a Delta shuttle or get comfy on Amtrak, and find your way south for a patriotic holiday escape.


NATIONAL DISPLAYS

All visitors making their way through Washington, D.C., should begin at President's Park, where the National Christmas Tree and the Pathway to Peace -- 56 trees (representing every U.S. state, territory and district) decorated with one-of-a-kind ornaments made by Americans will be illuminated from 5 to 11 p.m. daily through Jan. 1. Nearby, at the Ellipse, Santa's Workshop offers the kiddies an opportunity to glimpse St. Nick and his elves busy in their workshop before they head off to deliver presents on Christmas Eve. Don't forget to check the schedule for nightly musical performances. Admission is free (thenationaltree.org).

Also near the Ellipse is the National Hanukkah Menorah, which will be lit in a public ceremony at 4 p.m. on Dec. 20 (nationalmenorah.org).

After lingering in President's Park, head over to the National Zoo for an evening experience like few others. Designed by Central Park's Frederick Olmsted, the zoo is headlining the season with ZooLights, a free program that delivers an alternative encounter with members of the animal kingdom. The twinkling grounds light up against the night sky, while massive animated sculptures and the zoo's unscripted residents create a soundtrack that will entertain visitors of all ages (through Jan. 1, nationalzoo.si.edu).


TRAINS

Like handcrafted gingerbread houses, model train displays are an integral part of any holiday experience. For some of the best, make your way over to Union Station. This year's display is three times the size of the last year's -- model trains from other railroad time periods can also be seen (free, through Jan. 1, unionstationdc.com).

More trains? The U.S. Botanic Garden offers another train display, one that chugs through a Washington reinvented in plant-based miniatures. The exhibit, called "Season's Greenings," is free and also runs through Jan. 1 (www.usbg.gov).


PERFORMANCES

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A holiday season just isn't a holiday season without a staging of "The Nutcracker," and this year D.C. offers two localized versions of the tale. The Washington Ballet's "Nutcracker" is quintessentially Washington, recasting the Nutcracker Prince as George Washington and the dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy as the dance of the Cherry Blossoms. The setting? A Georgetown mansion, of course ($40-$110 through Dec. 24, washingtonballet.org).

The other D.C. "Nutcracker" is Duke Ellington's jazzed-up version of Tchaikovsky's classic score. In this incarnation, which is being showcased at Blues Alley, a posh supper club by Eric Felton's Jazz Orchestra, native Ellington re-imagined such roles as the Sugar Plum Fairy as sassy "Sugar Rum Cherry" ($25, 8 and 10 p.m. Dec. 15, bluesalley.com).

Similar to "The Nutcracker," Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" is another perennial fan favorite around Christmastime. Playing on the grounds of the 1865 assassination of President Lincoln, the historical Ford's Theatre will witness the arrival of ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future as they lead the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge on a journey of transformation and redemption. ($57-$65 through Dec. 31, fords.org).

For something more reverential, the National Symphony Orchestra will perform Handel's "Messiah" at the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall -- the venue's largest performance space, seating 2,465. Handel's masterpiece will be conducted by Matthew Halls and performed with the help of guest singers and the University of Maryland Concert Choir ($20-$85, Dec. 15-18, kennedy-center.org).


ICE

If you're looking to get your skate on, the National Gallery of Art's Sculpture Garden Ice Rink opened in mid-November and welcomes skaters through mid-March. Glide along to music while ogling the view of magnificent sculptures on the grounds of one of the premier galleries in the country ($7-$8, plus $3 skate rental, nga.gov).

Don't skate, but love the cold? You're in luck. One of the most eagerly anticipated holiday events -- ICE! -- takes place at the National Harbor's Gaylord Hotel. This year, the 15,000-square-foot installation carved from 2 million pounds of ice draws inspiration from DreamWorks' "Merry Madagascar" holiday TV special. Stroll through the exhibit and relive the story of Santa's crash into the island of Madagascar. The show is open daily through Jan. 8 ($25-$35 adults, $20-$30 ages 4-12; nationalharbor.com).


SHOPPING

Upcoming holidays mean oncoming shopping sprees. Whether you're buying for loved ones or office grab bags, the markets of D.C. are ready for gift-giving. Locals swear by the Downtown Holiday Market, which runs through Dec. 23. Centered at Eighth and F streets across from the Smithsonian's American Art Museum, this market sells everything from jewelry to ceramics to clothing and antiques (downtownholidaymarket.com).

For hard-core shoppers, Merriment in Georgetown is 12 days of sales, tastings and events tailored around Georgetown's many boutiques and restaurants (through Dec. 20, merrimentingeorgetown.com).

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EAT AND DRINK

It's hard not to indulge over the holidays, and with hot new restaurants springing up all over the city, the question of where to dine in D.C. has become difficult.

AmericaEats Tavern is 2011 James Beard Award winner Jose Andres' pop-up restaurant, which explores uniquely American foods like ketchup ($3), Cobb salad ($16) and eggs Benedict ($16) (americaeatstavern.com).

"Top Chef" runner-up Mike Isabella is giving Andres a run for his money with the highly praised Graffiato. An Italian inspired menu of small plates, killer pizzas ($14-$18) and refined pastas ($9-$19) is served in a funky rock-and-roll dining room that has natives clamoring for reservations (graffiatodc.com).

If you're looking for a holiday menu, head to Adour at the St. Regis on Christmas Day. It's luxurious and expensive ($95 for adults, $45 for kids), and Alain Ducasse is serving up a five-course menu of French classics laced with foie gras and truffles (adour-washingtondc.com). Less rich for your blood is 1789, an elegant Colonial Georgetown mansion with various set holiday menus, refined food and cozy fireplaces (1789restaurant.com).

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For drinks, curl up in front of the fireplace in the lobby lounge of Georgetown's swank Ritz-Carlton, a brick factory that's a magnet for D.C.'s hippest residents (ritzcarlton.com).

Or, if you're feeling kitschy, don some ugly wool and join the Janky Christmas Sweater Party on Dec. 17 at the Duplex Diner, where tinsel, drag queens and terrible threads are always in fashion (duplexdiner.com).

For kids (and adults with a sweet tooth), New York's own Serendipity 3 recently put down roots in the heart of Georgetown, so stop in for some serious sugar action, including everyone's favorite Frrrozen Hot Chocolate ($9-$14) or a make-your-own-sundae ($9-$18) of epic proportions (serendipity3dc.com).


MEET SANTA

Christmas wouldn't feel complete without logging some one-on-one with the man himself, so make time for Brunch With Santa at the Kennedy Center's Roof Terrace Restaurant. A lavish affair with selections ranging from hand-shucked oysters and made-to-order omelets to chicken fingers and macaroni and cheese, the skyline views, live jazz and keepsake from Santa himself are added treats ($39.99 adults, $20 ages 4-11; 10 a.m. Dec. 17-18, kennedy-center.org).

If you can't make it to brunch, be sure to find your way to the Potomac River on Christmas Eve. There, the annual appearance of Waterskiing Santa, his kneeboarding reindeer (and special guests like the flying elves, the Jet-Skiing Grinch and Frosty the Snowman) whip down the Potomac as people cheer from the sidelines. Tip: The best views can be had from the National Harbor in Maryland (1 p.m. sharp Dec. 24, waterskiingsanta.com).