How Maryland’s Most Diverse County Celebrates the Holidays

Garden of Lights at Brookside Gardens

The Hip Hop Nutcracker. An inclusive dining scene. Light displays and tree orchards galore. What’s not to like about an end-of-year visit to Montgomery County, Maryland?

Joi Brown grew up in Montgomery County, Md., doing community theater amid a “relatively diverse” group of teens in the ’70s. But when she returned five years ago, after spending three decades in the Midwest, she noticed that the population was more multicultural than ever.

“It certainly feels like it’s crackling with diversity, and it’s really exciting,” said Brown, the artistic director and vice president of programming for Strathmore, a nonprofit multidisciplinary arts center in North Bethesda. “I love that when I go to the grocery store, I hear four or five languages, every single time.”

In 2017, people of color comprised 56 percent of the population in Montgomery County, and foreign-born residents represented 33 percent—up from 28 percent and 19 percent, respectively, in 1990. These changing demographics have expanded and enriched the local theater scene, said Brown: “One of the reasons I was interested in coming [to Strathmore] was [the] voracious appetite for exploring and celebrating the range of perspectives in our community.”

That feeling extends across Montgomery County, which is home to three out of the 10 most culturally diverse cities in the country and where 45 percent of businesses are minority-owned. And it makes for a holiday season that feels distinct from anywhere else in the D.C. area, where locals and visitors gather to experience a booming theater scene, a multicultural array of restaurants and an assortment of old-fashioned fun, from trolley rides to Christmas tree farms.

“No matter where I go in the county, there’s areas that are extremely diverse, both in population and in the experiences that we offer visitors and residents,” said Cory Van Horn, Chief Strategy Officer for Visit Montgomery.

A new kind of visit

Just as the local population has expanded and diversified, a broader range of visitors are coming to Montgomery County, according to Van Horn—including D.C. residents on overnight breaks, business travelers on extended stays and tourists who are in the area to visit the nation’s capital.

Many are drawn by the county’s proximity to three major airports and access to the Metro, but visitors are also discovering the area’s unique destinations—such as a 93,000-acre agricultural reserve—as well as boutique experiences, like the Holiday Lodge Suite at Canopy by Hilton in North Bethesda. That’s why, rather than staying with local friends and family who happen to live in Montgomery County, more and more holiday season visitors are booking hotels and “treating the experience as a weekend getaway,” said Van Horn.

Canopy Holiday Lodge Suite

For visitors, a good first stop is the Strathmore arts center, a 1,976-seat music center where recent performances have ranged from a pop-crossover string trio to a collaboration between a Brazilian musician and a spoken-word artist.

This holiday season features performances of “The Hip Hop Nutcracker,” a modern spin on the 19th-century ballet. Set in present-day New York City, it features new choreography and the original Tchaikovsky score, which feels different “when you see hip-hop dancers popping and locking and trying to find the rhythms within the [music],” said Brown. “Audiences of all ages, races and backgrounds have attended this performance and feel that it speaks to them on an authentic level.”

The Music Center at Strathmore

At the Olney Theatre Center, “A Christmas Carol” will be staged for the 10th year in a row, but with a slight twist. The one-man production stars Paul Morella, a prolific actor from the D.C. area who “attacks it every year like it’s a new play,” said Olney’s director of marketing Joshua Ford—referring to Morella’s tendency to add lines or reassign them to different characters, to keep things fresh. Despite new technical elements like video projections, audiences can expect “the purest distillation of Dickens’ story,” Ford said, complete with Gothic undercurrents, in an intimate black-box theater setting.

Wholesome holiday fun in a modern atmosphere

Before or after catching a show, visitors can drive through the Winter Lights Festival in Gaithersburg, a 3.5-mile stretch of Seneca Creek State Park aglow with more than 450 light displays. The event has become a tradition “for all types of people [and] families,” said Carolyn Crosby, senior program supervisor for Gaithersburg’s department of parks, recreation and culture.

“You just pile people into your car and bring hot chocolate and a playlist,” she said. “There’s something very magical about it.”

The journey traverses themed areas like Penguin Cove and Toyland, while crowd favorites include classic Christmas scenes and a tunnel-like section through snowflake archways. Newer animated displays like Mermaid Lagoon have been earning raves and more fairytale-inspired creatures are planned for next year’s 25th anniversary.

“Because our area is so diverse, we design [displays] to focus on the winter and holiday season in general, as opposed to any one particular holiday,” said Crosby. Locals’ preferences, gathered through an annual survey, also help inspire new designs.

Winter Lights Festival

Over at Brookside Gardens, families can walk through the Garden of Lights, featuring colorful interpretations of nature—like large flowers and hopping frogs—designed by Montgomery Park employees. More seasonal fun is available at Butler’s Orchard, where thousands of white pine and Douglas fir trees are grown. And the Holly TrolleyFest, held weekends in December at the National Capital Trolley Museum, features a family-friendly makeshift village with toy streetcars and rides with Santa.

Amid all the activity and excitement of the holiday season, however, Van Horn cherishes something simpler: sitting down to a meal with friends and family. That’s also easy to do in Montgomery County, which Van Horn described as “a foodie paradise,” with more than 1,000 restaurants serving everything from traditional Persian, Indian and Ethiopian cuisine to popular food halls serving an array of Asian cuisines in Rockville.

“The act of gathering around the table and dining together is a universal language for all cultures,” Van Horn said. “Everybody speaks [the] language of food, and it’s a perfect way to spend time with your family here.”

As seen in The Washington Post.