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The Birth of the Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade

We visited as a guest of the venue

For 109 years Newport Beach has invited locals and guests from afar to marvel it the beauty of the Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade.  Year after year our family tradition has been to watch these lights float on top of the water bringing with them holiday cheer.  

This year, as I stood along the beach at Marina Park watching the smiles on the faces of my children and that of strangers nearby, I wondered if John Scarpa and Joseph Beek realized how greatly they impacted the holidays in Orange County. If you don’t recognize the names, then please read on and learn about how two mean brought magic to Newport Beach.  

Over 100 years ago, Scarpa and Beek established what was then called the Tournament of Lights. Scarpa owned a gondolier company and began the tradition of lighting boats by taking a group of visitors from Pasadena across the bay in a gondola decorated with Japanese lanterns.  
Behind his lit gondola, eight canoes followed the illuminated lanterns and sailed across the bay. That was the night of Newport’s first boat parade (one with lights) and a birth of an annual tradition. In 1913 the parade was called The Illuminated Water Parade in which boats were judged and prized for the best decorated, and best-lighted vessels were given. 

Unfortunately due to the eruption of World War I, a severe depression hit Newport Harbor, and the parade was put on the backburner. It was not until 1919 that Beek, who at the time was operating ferryboats, came to rescue the lighted boat parade.  

Beek would help neighborhood children who were the ones participating in the light parade construct and decorate floats in his garage. They modeled and patterned their floats to those seen in the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Parade. It went on until World War II when once again our country had to shift its focus and support. 

When the parade started up again, people traveled from all around to see the beauty of the parade. As much as it brought joy to those who saw it, it also brought in heavy crowds and traffic congestion causing locals to end the parade. 

With the parade ending, residents still wanted to keep some part of it magic alive during the holidays, so Newport Beach City employees outfitted a barge with a lit Christmas tree. The barge was then towed around the harbor while its passengers sang Christmas carols to residents on shore.  

For years residences would come out to sing along and enjoy the barge as it sailed on the bay.  A few years later, the Beek family provided one of their ferryboats for the floating Christmas tree celebration. Gradually, each year, other lighted boats fell in line behind the city employees’ floating tree. Soon the Tournament of Lights came back as a Christmas celebration. 

Today the Tournament of Lights is called the Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade and features as many as 100 boats.  The parade is hosted by the Commodores Club of the Newport Beach Chamber of Commerce and The New York Times has hailed it as one of the top ten holiday happenings in the nation. Even though it still causes crowding and traffic, the joy it brings to the people who see it outweighs all of that.  

The boat parade has already sailed for the year but luckily it’s a yearly tradition that occurs during the second week in December, and you can experience its magic next year.

I’m an OC mom of two and photographer. I love living in Southern California and want to expose my children to all that it offers. I love taking my kids on adventures and capturing their every moment so much so that my kids find it odd if I don’t take their pictures. You can see my work on facebook.com/photosbynaz.
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