Newport Beach Christmas boat parade

Newport Beach Christmas boat parade

The Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade in Newport Beach, California, has a long history as a yuletide favorite. It began at the turn of the 20th Century. John Scarpa, an Italian gondolier by trade, and Joseph Beek, developer of Beacon Bay, the Balboa Ferry Line at Balboa Island, CA (Newport Beach) and the principal force in the early development of Balboa Island, arrived in the Newport Harbor area about 98 years ago. These two men established what was then called the Tournament of Lights, an event that would continue for the next nine decades[1]

In 1907, Scarpa began taking a group of visitors from Pasadena across the Newport bay in a gondola decorated with Japanese lanterns. One year later, on July 4, 1908, the first lighted boat parade took place. Scarpa, along with his fellow small boat operators, put together a loosely organized affair consisting of nine vessels. The parade, illuminated by Japanese lanterns, was led by Scarpa’s gondola and followed by eight canoes. Thus, Scarpa has been credited with creating the first lighted boat parade.

It was 1913 when Walter Gustin, decided to promote the event featuring lighted boats which was called the “Illuminated Water Parade”, and to incent participation, the boats were judged and prizes for the best decorated and best lighted vessels were given. Unfortunately this was to be the last parade for the next five years. World War I erupted and the depression hit Newport Harbor. It was not until 1919 that Beek, who at the time was operating ferryboats like the Fat Ferry, came to rekindle the lighted boat parade, resulting in the establishment of the "Balboa Tournament of Lights" in 1921. While support for this event came from both the Island and the Peninsula. Soon there were fleets of rowboats, canoes, and small sailboats. Even motorboats, power cruisers and large auxiliaries became a common sight. By 1929, scores of decorated and illuminated power craft were towing their quota of small craft. As each tournament followed, the decorations became more varied and imaginative. In 1929, Governor C.C. Young stated, "It's one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen! I think its most charming feature is its freedom from commercialism." [2]

With the exception of a few years during World War II, the Tournament of Lights was held every summer from 1919 through 1949. Skipped in 1948, 1949 the Police and Fire authorities believed that the light parade was drawing too many visitors to the harbor and creating heavy crowding and traffic congestion. The Tournament of Lights fell out of favor.

However, back in 1946, Newport Beach City employees had outfitted a barge during the holiday season and installed a lighted Christmas tree. The barge was towed around the harbor while its passengers sang Christmas carols to residents on shore.

Most of the early participants were children who decorated floats that were towed around the harbor. The floats were constructed in Beek’s garage and many were patterned after those seen in the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Parade.

In later years, the Beek family came to the front again and 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. However, in the early 1970s the crowd draw forced the Beeks to withdraw their ferry, for it was needed for service transport for all the people, by then there were more than enough boats glad to lead the parade.

Today the Tournament of Lights, now called the Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade, features as many as 150 boats. The parade is proudly hosted by the Commodores Club of the Newport Beach Chamber of Commerce and is hailed as “one of the top ten holiday happenings in the nation” by the New York Times. With this year’s theme, “Twas the Lights Before Christmas,” the parade is the premier event of the holiday season in Southern California. [3]


  1. ^ Balboa Island Visitor's Guide
  2. ^ Tales of, 2002.
  3. ^ Christmas Boat, 2002.

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