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Lobdell: Boat Parade is great — for everyone else

I know I’m supposed to love the Christmas Boat Parade, but I just don’t.

It makes me feel a little Grinchy to admit this, but I have no desire to be among the estimated 1 million enchanted spectators who will line the bay front of Newport Harbor over five nights this week (the parade continues this evening through Sunday, rain or clear skies).

I know the sight of more than 100 boats bedazzled with miles of colored holiday lights — and floating against a backdrop of mansions lit up like Clark Griswold’s home in “Christmas Vacation” — is enough to take anyone’s breath away, including mine.

But for me, the breathlessness lasts only a few minutes before the repetitive passing of each gorgeously decorated boat numbs my brain — and that’s without the assist of any liquid Christmas cheer.


I soon find myself looking at my watch and thinking glumly, “Oh, holy night! I have to endure this for two more hours? I’ve got to find some eggnog — fast!”

If you think that makes me Newport-Mesa’s version of Scrooge, hold onto your mistletoe. I haven’t even gotten started.

Even the event’s official title — the 102nd annual Christmas Boat Parade — doesn’t quite sit right with me. It’s not because organizers haven’t yet exchanged “Christmas” for “Holiday” in a fit of political correctness. It’s the “102nd annual” part because the calculation is more than a little bit off. Here’s the back story.

The “Illuminated Water Parade” — as it was first called — started on the evening of July 4, 1908, when John Scarpa, an Italian gondolier, and Joseph Beek, one of Newport’s founding fathers, put together a rag-tag, nine-boat procession lit by Japanese lanterns. It was said to be America’s first lighted boat parade.


Since then, the parade has missed several years, during World War I and in the late 1940s when the police and fire officials believed the then-summer event attracted too many visitors to Newport’s already crowded streets.

The current shift to a Christmas-season boat parade had its beginnings in 1946, when city employees decorated a barge during the holidays and brought carolers — mostly children — aboard to serenade residents on the bay front.

Later, Beek family members, who owned the Balboa ferry operation, put a Christmas tree on one of their ferries as part of the floating holiday celebration. Each year, more and more lighted boats began to follow the ferry until the Christmas Boat Parade began, in the early 1970s, to take its current shape.

So, yes, it’s been 102 years since the first boat parade, but with the missed years, I’m guessing it’s more like the city’s 90th boat parade. And if we’re talking about strictly Christmas Boat Parades, you can shave another 40 or so years off.

In the end, I really don’t mind the fudging of the anniversary numbers. It’s part of the small(ish) town marketing charm of a cherished local tradition (and same goes for the 1 million spectator estimate, which would translate to an average crowd of 200,000 — twice the size of a sold-out Rose Bowl — sardined into Newport each night of the parade).

(Full disclosure: As editor of the Pilot, I came up with the tagline, “Serving the Newport-Mesa community since 1907,” which is loosely based on historical fact. With some imaginative leaps of logic, you can trace the Pilot’s beginnings — through its ancestor newspapers — to that date. But as a marketing line, it’s rock solid.)

Holiday traffic jams are a more legitimate cause of my Christmas parade malaise. Newport’s unique geography — with seven islands and a peninsula — makes the roads congested even during midday. Throw in hordes of boat parade lovers onto streets hemmed in by bodies of water, and you have the perfect traffic tangle.

And there’s the cold. I know I sound like a Southern California weenie, but I feel like a human Popsicle after standing for hours and watching the parade go by. Sometimes, the temperature even dips below 50 degrees! It’s a wonder that frostbite hasn’t led to the amputation of my toes from the few times I braved the bitter cold.


There’s also the conspicuous-consumption angle to the parade that gnaws at me just a bit. The parade’s official website brags that in past years, boat owners have spent up to $50,000 decorating their yachts. In this economy, that would be something I’d tend to downplay.

As I write this, I realize that it’s not the boat parade’s fuzzy math (it’s just clever marketing), traffic (the price to pay to see one of the most incredible annual spectacles in America), cold (part of the ambiance) or conspicuous consumption (why not splurge on a Christmas present that gives pleasure to hundreds of thousands of people?) that leaves me empty.

It’s the sameness of the parade, so picturesque night after night, year after year. Perfection can be boring. If the boat parade featured marauding pirates, I’d be there every night.

I put the Christmas Boat Parade in the must-do (but once-is-enough) category along with the Laguna Beach’s Pageant of the Masters, shots of Jagermeister, the Orange County Fair, a U2 concert, the Rose Parade, South Coast Repertory’s “A Christmas Carole,” the Rose Bowl game, a midnight showing of the “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” California Adventure, and taking Rhonda Sammons to the eighth-grade prom.

Still, I’m happy to be in the minority when it comes to the Christmas Boat Parade. I may be blind to its considerable charm, but — like “Two and a Half Men” and Gwyneth Paltrow movies — I can recognize the joy it brings to millions of others (in addition to being a huge boon to Newport’s economy).

So don’t let me rain any longer on the Christmas Boat Parade while it celebrates its 102nd birthday (and it doesn’t look a day over 40). I’ll be snug in my home, not wearing a red holiday sweater with a Christmas tree on it, not putting on a baseball cap with reindeer antlers attached, and not watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” (more holiday traditions I haven’t figured out yet).

I think the Lakers are on.

Merry Christmas.


WILLIAM LOBDELL is former editor of the Daily Pilot, former Los Angeles Times reporter and editor, and a Costa Mesa resident. The column runs Tuesday and Friday. His e-mail is