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Mask up, gingerbread men: It’s Christmas at the Capitol

Here’s how Hill traditions are faring during the pandemic

The Capitol Christmas Tree is unloaded on the West Front of the Capitol on Nov. 20. The lighting ceremony on Wednesday will be closed to the public.
The Capitol Christmas Tree is unloaded on the West Front of the Capitol on Nov. 20. The lighting ceremony on Wednesday will be closed to the public. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

When you see the lights blaze to life on a gigantic tree, plucked from a national forest and deposited by crane in front of the Capitol, you know it’s about to be the hobnobbiest time of the year in Washington. 

This year, not so much. When Nancy Pelosi presides over the lighting of the Capitol Christmas Tree on Wednesday, it will be a scaled-back affair, with a smaller festive entourage and no public audience. If you really want to hear about the majesty of this 55-foot Engelmann Spruce hauled hundreds of miles from Colorado, you’ll have to catch the livestream.

And if you really want to party like it’s not 2020, you’ll have to look outside the usual calendar of events that has come to define the holiday season in Congress.

While the occupants of the White House are reportedly charging ahead with a full schedule of December celebrations despite the pandemic, things are a bit more subdued at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. 

“The challenge is how do you take the spirit of the holiday, and keep that alive and connected to people, many of whom are having a hard time,” said Rep. Debbie Dingell, a standard-bearer of Christmas cheer on the Hill.

Usually her office in the Cannon Building is decked out from top to bottom, complete with human-sized nutcrackers. (“My friends think I have too many nutcrackers,” she told Heard on the Hill in 2017.) This year most of her staff is working remotely, so the decorations are largely absent too. 

But the Michigan Democrat vowed to keep up at least one tradition — the “Dingell Jingle,” her annual politics-holiday mashup song that wraps a Festivus-style airing of grievances into a bright and tidy package.

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Last year’s offering, set to the tune of “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire,” called Republicans “members of the Trump choir” and referenced impeachment. It might be hard to top that, but between the election, the pandemic and everything else going on in 2020, there’s a lot of material to pull from. Look for an accompanying video, warned Dingell, who took over the decades-old jingle tradition from her late husband.

“I’m really trying to think out of the box,” she said of her approach to the season in general.

That same sentiment is echoed, often with less enthusiasm, in the circles of influence that surround Congress and rely on the holiday party circuit to keep relationships warm.

For the lobbying shops, PR firms, trade groups and think tanks that typically host a glut of Washington receptions, simply moving things to Zoom isn’t an option, since beverages and tiny finger foods are the main attractions.

Among those who decided to sit things out entirely is lobbyist Michael Herson, CEO of American Defense International. His past events, held in a large Eastern Market space, have drawn around 600 people throughout the night, including a range of House and Senate staff and members of Congress.

“It’s the one time of the year that our community really gets together,” he said. “I’m sad we won’t be able to have that this year.”

Elsewhere on the elbow-rubbing scene, the National Association of Broadcasters also canceled their annual do, while the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is hosting a virtual party for employees in lieu of its usual reception.

Some who hoped to carry on in spite of the coronavirus had second thoughts. One Republican fundraising firm, High Cotton Consulting, sent out invitations in November touting a party on Dec. 8, but reversed course after D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced tighter limits on gatherings.

“This was canceled due to the new restrictions,” High Cotton’s Alexandra Kendrick said in an email when asked about the plan.

Back at the Capitol itself, another difference will be the smell. A certain hint of spice used to linger in the air, thanks to a meticulously detailed gingerbread replica tucked away on the House side. It looked exactly like the Capitol, except covered in icing.

Because the building remains closed to visitors, there was talk of forgoing the tradition altogether this year, said chef and gingerbread architect Fred Johnson. Instead, he decided to move his creation off campus.

“I just couldn’t see skipping it,” said Johnson, who oversees food operations for the House of Representatives.

Using a computer to design the project, he crafted it out of 160 pounds of candy, icing and gingerbread and set up a webcam so people can view it from home. 

He did all of this in his Maryland basement. Oh, and the little gingerbread people are wearing masks. 

Fred Johnson built this year’s gingerbread replica of the Capitol at home in Maryland, complete with masked gingerbread people. (Courtesy Fred Johnson)

Johnson, who spent two decades in the Air Force before coming to the Hill in 2016, said he jumped at the chance that first year when someone asked if he could do a gingerbread house and hasn’t looked back. 

While so much of what happens in the Capitol is partisan, there’s nothing political about gingerbread, he insists. 

“To be a part of something that’s neutral and to be creating something that people enjoy” is important to him, he said. “If the tree lighting can be virtual so can this.” 

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