News & Politics

Good News for Aliens: DC Has America’s Brightest Holiday Lights as Seen From Space

Actually, we're the No. 1 city for December light pollution. But let's not ruin the seasonal spirit!

2022 National Christmas Tree Lighting. Photograph Kelsey Graczyk/NPS.

I wasn’t planning to spend my holidays in low Earth orbit. But now? I’m having second thoughts. In a season marked by spectacular local nighttime light displays—the National Christmas Tree, Zoo Lights, that house down the street with the HAPPY BIRTHDAY JESUS manger + inflatable Santas collab that absolutely goes to 11—it turns out that the single best place to appreciate our region’s sheer, overwhelming glowiness is somewhere between the CIA satellite currently reading the face of your smartwatch and that electric car Elon Musk shot into space for the lulz.

At least, that’s my takeaway from a recent study crowning DC as the brightest US city in December—as, uh, seen from space.

That’s right: we are America’s holiday city of light, at least from the perspective of those speedy airborne tic-tacs that no one can say are piloted by aliens. (It’s aliens). We are brighter than New York (No. 7), Chicago (No. 4), and Philadelphia (No. 9). Brighter than Dallas (No. 6), Phoenix (No. 15), and Los Angeles (No. 20). Brighter even than nearby Baltimore, which is somehow ranked No. 2.

Calculated by a UK website that reviews online casinos and based on NASA satellite imagery from the Light Pollution Map, the city standings raise many important questions, such as:

  • A UK website that reviews online casinos? ¿Cómo?
  • If the rankings are calculated by using light pollution as a proxy for holiday dazzle, isn’t that both disingenuous and, well, not something to be proud of?
  • DC already ranks as the seventh-best city in the US for burger lovers, the 11th-best city for swearing, the third-best city for dental health, the ninth-best city for rats, and the seventh-best city for being a basketball fan (a study that clearly was conducted before the Wizards acquired Jordan Poole). How many more “dumb and bad” fake city rankings pumped out for clickbait marketing purposes does the universe need? 

But never mind all that! I WANT TO BEHOLD THE TWINKLES. And frankly, I have some real problems with the holiday light-peeping status quo. The whole process can be deeply aggravating (for downtown traffic, the National Tree lighting ceremony is basically a blizzard without the snow), surprisingly costly (they’re charging for Zoo Lights, now), and a whole lot of work (home lights don’t string themselves). Moreover, you can’t possibly see ‘em all.

Except, actually, you can. You just need to slip the surly bonds of Earth by blasting yourself into the stratosphere. Such is the unintentional brilliance of declaring Washington tops in orbital holiday luminosity: by manipulating a dubious metric to fashion a ridiculous ranking, our UK casino-reviewing friends have inadvertently created the best reason to risk blowing up on a launchpad since Sputnik. At least for me. So forget a luxury SUV wrapped in a giant bow; there’s only one preposterously lavish gift I want under the tree this year. If too many lights mean you can’t see the stars from down here, might as well see the blinding glow from up there.

Patrick Hruby
Deputy Editor

Patrick Hruby joined the magazine in 2022. He previously worked as an editor or writer for ESPN, VICE, Sports on Earth, Global Sport Matters, and The Washington Times, and has contributed to publications including The Atlantic, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post.