The annual Christmas Ships Parade is a holiday tradition in the Portland/Vancouver area. Tables at waterside restaurants are reserved far in advance and people line the river banks to watch the lighted, creatively decorated ships sail by for two weeks in December. Many businesses and individuals schedule their holiday parties around the parade nights. Some flash their porch lights or car headlights as the fleet passes, showing their appreciation for the performance and the efforts of the volunteers who make it possible.
Boats Parade In A Fantasy Of Christmas Lights
Boat owners design and build their own displays and pay the operating costs, though many restaurants, hotels and other business make donations to help cover insurance and administrative costs. Every year, new boats join, and when skippers retire, they often hand down their lighting exhibits, keeping the tradition alive. Leaping dolphins and reindeer, Rudolph and soaring angels with trumpets, manger scenes and a multitude of stars create a Christmas fantasy in lights.
The Christmas Ships Parade began in 1954 with one sailboat. Decorated with green bows along the railings, it sailed the local rivers, and the next year others joined in. From then on, lighting displays grew more elaborate. Now about 55 to 60 boats, members of the Columbia River or Willamette River fleet, float the dark waters with their bright lights ablaze.
Boat Owners Create A Festive Holiday Season Sailing Tradition
Some boat owners make the parade a tradition for families and friends, with gatherings and parties held aboard the boats as they float by the Portland and Vancouver, Washington, region. The boats range in length from 14 feet to more than 60 feet. On various evenings they travel sections of the rivers from Camas, Washington, to Milwaukie, Oregon, past bays and landings and under bridges, sailing by decorated houseboats and the lights of downtown Portland.
Most of the ships are on the rivers every night the parade is scheduled, depending upon the weather. The leaders for the evening made that decision about half an hour before getting underway. If the parade must be cancelled due to winter conditions, the fleet goes out on the next scheduled evening.
Poem Honors The Christmas Ships Parade
In 1985, Liz Conser wrote a poem about the Christmas Ships Parade. In part, it reads,
“Lights like sugar plums
wreaths of life
a haunting fantasy
in the quiet night
a pageant unique
this Christmas fleet
this parade of lights
in the quiet night.”
Those watchers who are spellbound, as they gaze at these colorful apparitions going by in the darkness, feel the same magic.