Thanksgiving in Washington, DC Day One: Arlington National Cemetery, National Portrait Gallery

If you’ve been a reader for a few years, you may remember that our Thanksgiving tradition is to take a family trip. Washington, DC has been on our radar for a while. However, we wanted to wait until the kids were old enough to have learned a little about American History in school, and appreciate the museums and stories behind the figures who shaped this great nation. This was the year!

Arlington National Cemetery

We arrived midday on Day One and quickly dropped our bags at the hotel. We took a subway train ride over to Virginia to visit Arlington National Cemetery.  Arlington National Cemetery is an 1,000 acre property with a storied past. Once owned by George Washington Parke Custis – the step-grandson of George Washington – part of it also held a Freedman’s Village to assist former slaves transition to freedom. It became a burial ground when other DC cemeteries could not keep pace with the number of Civil War casualties. Now, it belongs to the War Department and is the final resting place for over 400,000 service members, veterans, and their families. Over 3,000 ceremonies and memorials take place each year. Notable graves include JFK, Robert Todd Lincoln, and Thurgood Marshall.

While waiting for our tour, we had the opportunity to explore a little museum and take photos with some members of The Old Guard.

Stinky was very proud to point out some of the things he’s learning about in Social Studies.

A view of graves at Arlington National Cemetery with the Washington Monument in the background

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

In 1921, Congress approved the burial of an unidentified American soldier from WWI. The site later welcomed the remains of unknown soldiers from WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. The remains from the Vietnam Unknown were exhumed in 1998, and thanks to DNA testing were identified as Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie. After being returned to his family, that crypt remains empty but the crypt cover reads, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.” Since 1948, twenty-four hours a day, soldiers from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, known as “The Old Guard,” stand watch over the Tomb.

One of the most interesting ceremonies to observe at the cemetery is the Changing of the Guard Ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The ceremony occurs every hour on the hour October 1 through March 31, and every half hour April 1 through September 30. It is executed with military precision. Though photos and videos are allowed, bystanders are asked to stand and remain silent.

Another subway ride later, we were back in DC. It was nearly 3:00 pm and we had not had so much as a bite to eat since breakfast. We ended up at Cocina Mexicana that served the best rice bowl ever! We inhaled our food and hit the National Mall, destination the National Portrait Gallery.

The National Portrait Gallery focuses on images of famous Americans. The collections span centuries of history and numerous styles.

Ever since learning about Kehinde Wiley, I could not wait to see President Barrack Obama’s Presidential Portrait for myself. It was as striking as I imagined. Amy Sherald’s painting of the First Lady Michelle Obama, though beautiful, was not as vivid as I expected. I can only assume this is an example of art imitating life in that the strong First Lady lives in the background of her husband’s success.

I call this my past and future shot:

Stinky in front of a portrait of President Obama

What I did not expect from the National Portrait Gallery was to see the issues of race, politics, and sex – three of the most polarizing subjects – so blatantly tackled in some of the artwork. From Civil Rights to America’s abandonment of Puerto Rico, the artists did not hold back. Some of it was hard to digest. Others seemed wrong to photograph. We addressed Stinky and Blinky’s questions as honestly, but age-appropriately as we could. These are two of the images forever etched in my memory.

We left tired from the day’s travels, but also I suppose because we were still processing everything we saw. Ironically, we exited right into the middle of a Christmas Market. That lifted our spirits a bit, as did a pit stop at It’s Sugar in Chinatown. We stopped to take photos of Friendship Arch and marveled at the little Chinese touches left in the neighborhood. It was just what we needed.

We walked back to City Center to our hotel and finally noticed the City’s Christmas Tree that was right in front of our hotel. We’d miss the tree-lighting ceremony, but it was still fun to see it decorated.

By this point, even the sugar high from It’s Sugar was wearing thin. We called it a night and took advantage of Red Lobster delivery. Original, I know!

Be sure to check back for a recap of the rest of our trip:

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