Another DC holiday tradition postponed: National Christmas Tree Lighting gridlock


FILE — Chevel Shepherd performs at the 97th annual National Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony in President’s Park on Dec. 5, 2019 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images)

It’s one of the most dreaded evening commutes during “the most wonderful time of the year.”

Yes, it’s the National Christmas Tree Lighting on The Ellipse, just south of the White House.

Over the last decade, the event has taken place on a range of dates, from late November through early December, always on a weeknight, much to the disgust of commuters who find roads closed and a massive downtown D.C. gridlock.

However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year is different. Monday’s lighting will be closed to the public and available for streaming online at a later date. Some streets around The Ellipse will be closed, but not to the degree that they usually are.

WTOP Traffic reporter Dave Dildine spent a number of years covering the brutal delays on foot and by bicycle.

“I recall orbiting downtown, up 14th Street, west on K Street, south on 23rd Street and onto the Roosevelt Bridge, and back one year, ever grateful to have use of the sidewalks, which were far more efficient than the clogged roads between them,” he said Monday afternoon while preparing to cover quite a different tree-lighting night.

Keeping with the spirit of the famous “A Visit From St. Nicholas” poem by Clement Clarke Moore, Dildine continued …

“Beyond the South Lawn, there arose such a clatter; the cacophony of car horns was the fact of the matter — a chorus of horns that would usually crescendo around Farragut Square.”

In fact, instead of covering the massive confluence of cars in D.C. on foot like in 2019, Dildine sat back at WTOP and found a cozy spot in front of the newsroom Christmas tree to record this video:

Though D.C.-area drivers surely have their stories about being stuck in traffic throughout the year, the night of the tree lighting is when exasperated drivers send desperate tweets to @WTOPTraffic.

A common thread? Many wonder why the ceremony isn’t held on the weekend. Especially those, as Dildine remembered, who would call into the traffic center and say they’d been stuck in their downtown office building’s parking garage for three hours.

“I believe, one year, inbound traffic on I-66 backed up to near the Spout Run Parkway exit, about 3 miles from the Roosevelt Bridge. The magnitude of the delays in hours is a better measurement,” Dildine said.

He said it’s one of the few preplanned events on the D.C. calendar that is capable of backing up traffic on the “normally free-flowing” Potomac Freeway.

Though this holiday season will certainly continue to be marked by muted traditional celebrations, no one, it seems, will miss the headache caused by the tree lighting.

Dan Friedell

Dan Friedell is a digital writer for WTOP. He came to the D.C. area in 2007 to work as digital editor for, and since then has worked for a number of local and national news organizations.

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