You Must Remember This: The tale of the first Christmas Boat Parade 


One of the very big events in the city is the annual Christmas Boat Parade. I have mixed emotions about the Parade, depending on my relationship to it. I’m not a big fan if I’m required to be part of the parade. I get very antsy on the water under any circumstances since unless I jump overboard I can’t just leave when the mood strikes, one of the reasons I don’t do cruises. As long as I’m not on a boat, however, I’m quite enthusiastic. I’ve loved taking my grandkids to China Cove with a thermos of cocoa and watch their expressions as the various boats sail by, and I love the way it brings the community together. I know people are into Christmas lights, but those on the parade route really go all out, and everybody in the city seems to participate in some way, even if it’s just one evening as a spectator.

The history of the boat parade is a long one, and its inception involves my father who may seem like a Zelig character when it comes to the city, popping up in all sorts of places. He was part of the original Junior Chamber of Commerce which existed until Pearl Harbor focused everybody’s attention elsewhere. It was the JCs who came up with the idea of a floating Christmas tree. As they developed the idea one thing was quite clear: It should stand out which meant it had to be a tree bigger than what one put in one’s living room. To find such a tree they contacted the Forestry Department, and was this their lucky day! The Forestry Department just happened to have a tree that had to be removed so that a road could be widened, and yes, indeed. It was bigger than what you would put in your living room. The Chamber was welcome to it. All they had to do was take it down and away. The Forestry Department also had a bridge for sale, probably, because when the JCs got to the site in the San Bernardino mountains they found a tree that was indeed too big for someone’s living room. According to my father, it would have been at home among the giant redwoods. Somehow these rank amateurs managed to cut the tree down without injury to themselves and somehow managed to get it on the truck they had brought, but once they did they found it was so wide that it presented a hazard to any other vehicles on the narrow mountain road. To prevent any accidents, several of the JCs went down the mountain in a lead car yelling things like “Run for the hills! The redcoats are coming!” and “Repent!” the irrelevance of which suggests a certain amount of drinking had taken place while they played lumberjack.

Whether it was skill or luck, they managed to not only get the tree off the mountain but through the streets of San Bernardino and then through Santa Ana Canyon, two lanes in those days, without forcing too many cars off the road, but once in Newport they faced another challenge – finding a boat big enough to float the tree since the normal cabin cruiser wasn’t going to cut it. Another lucky break – there was a big barge left over from the dredging of the harbor, and after a great deal of effort and confusion, they got the tree on the boat, secured and decorated, and then all the JCs – a comparatively small group in those days – got on the barge and tootled around the harbor singing Christmas carols, their musicianship undoubtedly oiled by a few Christmas toddies.

That is the tale of the first Christmas Boat Parade, and I’m sure none of the original organizers, sober or not, would ever have dreamed of it becoming the grand thing it is today.


Nancy Gardner, former Mayor of Newport Beach, longtime resident and daughter of Judge Robert Gardner, is a regular contributor to Stu News Newport.