We all have holiday traditions we look forward to each year.  These traditions and occasions make the holidays special and we enjoy sharing them with family and friends.

Our family’s favorite event is the Newport Harbor Christmas Parade.  This Southern California tradition has a long history and has grown from a single boat outfitted with Japanese lanterns into a 100-lighted boat spectacle.

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The boat parade was born!

The following year, on July 4, 1908, Scapa again took his decorated gondola out on the harbor. Behind me, eight canoes of his fellow boat operators followed along.  

This tradition continued until 1915 and the parade, called the Tournament of Lights, was held every July 4th.  As many as 40 vessels participated with an increasing number of onlookers each year.

When World War I broke out, the parade was absent for the next five years. But in 1919, Joseph Beek, a local developer and owner of the Balboa Ferry Line, reintroduced the parade of lights.  Children decorated floats much like the ones in the Pasadena Tournament of Roses. The work was done in Beek’s garage, and the colorful designs were then towed around the harbor every July 4th.  Except for a few years during World War II, the Tournament of Lights parade was held from 1919 to 1949.

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The parade grew to be so popular that the city of Newport Beach stopped it in 1949. It didn’t know how to manage the large crowds, traffic and congestion it caused in the harbor area.

Meanwhile, back in 1946, some city workers were starting a new tradition. They placed a lighted Christmas tree onto a barge and towed it around the harbor, with passengers singing carols for the spectators onshore.  A new history for the parade had started. The parade was moved from its summer date and was now held during the Christmas holidays. It continued to grow in size and popularity.

Several years later, the Beek family joined this new parade tradition and provided a ferry boat for the floating parade.  Eventually, as more boat owners joined the celebration and followed the city’s Christmas tree float, the lighted parade tradition was revived.

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Part of the viewing fun is the variety of participating boats. It includes everything from kayaks and canoes to sailboats and luxury yachts, all bedecked in colorful lights.  For some, it is an annual family tradition and each new generation puts their own individual touches on their festive holiday boat.  Many boats have carolers aboard, holiday music playing and unique special effects.

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Last year, the parade Sweepstakes winner featured a fire breathing dragon! Boats entering the parade are eligible to win awards in categories that include: the Sweepstakes winner, Best Lights, Best Sailboat, and Best Powerboat. There are also technical categories like Best Animation and Best Special Effects.

Competition can be fierce with some boaters planning their decorations an entire year in advance. Of course, the friendly competition makes the viewing all the better from a spectator’s point of view!  Not to be outshone, the bay front homeowners participate as well, with elaborate light displays on their beautiful facades.  The colorful glow of the lights reflecting on the water creates a special sight to behold.

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This year will be the city’s 109th Newport Beach Christmas Boat parade, with Mickey Mouse from nearby Disneyland presiding as Grand Marshall.  The event is one of Newport Beach’s most popular events. It typically runs for four consecutive nights.  Named one of the “top ten holiday happenings in the nation” by the New York Times, it truly is a magical, happy holiday tradition celebrating Southern California’s unique Christmas event. It will undoubtedly endure for many more years to come.

Photos By: Denise Benson

Denise Benson

Denise Benson

Denise Benson is a photographer, creative writer and traveler. Discovering new ideas, people, places and cultures is a lifelong passion, which Denise enjoys sharing with her readers using her unique perspective as a photographic storyteller. An avid sailor, she and her husband Brian have sailed 10,000 blue water miles exploring the South Pacific. Along with sailing, she enjoys travel, food & wine, books and nature related activities, including napping on the fore-deck of her boat, Moonstone.

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