No Holiday Lights For Capitol Dome. Again

With the delta variant of COVID-19 casting its long shadow across the country and the omicron mutation inching its way around the world, the holiday season of 2021 may seem darker than those we have enjoyed in the past. However, to put it in perspective, the author of this column hearkens back to his first winter as a resident of metropolitan Washington, D.C.

It was the week of the holiday 2009. When I had moved to the area the year before, not knowing any better and being accustomed to Midwest winters, I brought a snow shovel with me and my new neighbors laughed, asking me what I needed that for. Well, just a few months later, they found out- we all did- the hard way.

An Arctic Oscillation (in fact, the most negative recorded to that date) had dropped the jet stream from Canada deep into the southern U.S., bringing with it sub frigid temperatures to areas of the nation not acquainted to frozen blasts. At the same time, a warmer sub tropical front pushed its way north along the Eastern Seaboard, becoming blocked by a high pressure dome locked in over New England. The result was the greatest snowfall in the recorded history of the Mid Atlantic.

The beautiful snowfall began the evening of Dec. 19, gracing the trees and the white marble stone of our nation’s capital with a glowing layer of sticky powder. It continued, however, until nearly two feet of heavy wet snow covered everything in sight. Cars looked like mounds of white forming long rows down every street. With too few plows to respond to such intense snowfall, the only way to identify a street was by following the line of mounds.

I resided, at the time, in a high rise condominium tower and discovered I was one of only two residents in the entire complex with a snow shovel. The metro subway train tracks, which I normally traveled, were completely buried, but I, nor anyone else, could drive a car to the train station anyway. So with my one shovel, I began early in the morning digging out cars. It was a process that lasted all day and again into the next.

Having co-workers and friends who were natives to D.C. and therefore not equipped for an inch, let alone 24, I walked as far as 10 miles, digging out sub compacts and SUVs as far as the eye could see. Not just cars, but because the locals had no shovels themselves, I was excavating paths from front doors to driveways to sidewalks.

The government, of course, was shut down, with so few able to reach the Capitol. So, after finally digging out my own car, this writer decided to test the skills of the snow removal forces in Washington, and delicately drove to Capitol Hill. I found a rare parking space and began exploring a winter wonderland of famous landmarks all enshrouded in white.

It was almost eerie, so few people on the Mall or around the memorials during a season of the year usually bustling. Snow everywhere, no buildings open, there wasn’t much to do but take in the shimmering white elegance of the pristine, undisturbed, glistening carpet that stretched from one end of the city to the other. With little else to do, many who were out started building snowmen in front of the nation’s most endearing symbols of democracy. The author of this column, though, had to be different.

After a snow angel in front of the Washington Monument and a snowman (or snowperson, as they say in D.C.), I looked at the Capitol and found its lawn, other than the National Christmas Tree, to be a blank canvas. There was a snowman and woman to be built beside it, but the remaining untouched sparkling powder called out for more. Not wanting to repeat what was done before with another snowman, I looked around for inspiration and decided, instead, to build the Capitol itself, in miniature, out of snow.

Not knowing when I started out the day that I would launch upon such an ambitious project, I had no shovels or scoops, or even cups, with me, all that was available was a small square of cardboard that a child had abandoned after using it to sled down the shallow slope of the hill which the Capitol crowns.

Loading snow onto it, carrying it across the lawn, and then packing it high, an outline of the dome and Senate and House chambers began to rise in the shadow of the real thing, until complete. It took several hours and an inspection or two by Capitol Police, who wanted to make sure there was nothing nefarious inside of it But as evening set in, the colorful lights of the National Tree reflected off its shiny facade and the brave tourists who ventured out. As many pictures were taken of it as of its bigger brother at the top of the Hill.

Wet and cold, I went home that night realizing I would never forget the year I spent Christmas Eve modeling a miniature Capitol at the foot of its iconic dome.

Yes, I was certain that’s what I would remember most from that winter … but I was wrong. A little over a month later, in the first week of February, a second storm hit, this time with even more snow than the last one, and a week after that, a third walloped the region with yet another twelve inches.

So, as we all complain about the inconveniences of COVID-19 and how it has interrupted or curtailed our holiday plans the last couple of years, look back upon Washington, D.C. eleven years ago, and with Iowa’s balmy temperatures and sparse white flurries, It makes 2021 look warmer and bright.

David V. Wendell is a Marion historian, author and special events coordinator specializing in American history.

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