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The Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade is the prime seaside event of the year for Southern Californians. In the parade, boats of all kinds are dressed up with lights and sailed down from their various ports in the Orange County coastal areas to amuse and amaze with some yuletide cheer.
They are decorated with light displays ranging from a few strings to thousands of bulbs hung all over entire ships. The amount of passengers per boat depends on the size of the boat, but in parties large and small, everyone is bundled up and happy to be aboard. Some vessels even carry singers, DJs, and inflatable Santas to help celebrate! This exciting tradition dates back to the early 1900s, and its roots simply lie with an Italian man’s passion for gondolas.
John Scarpa was born in Venice, Italy, and very little is known about his life up until he moved to California. As a gondolier in Venice, Scarpa was one of many men brought to America by Abbott Kinney. Kinney was developing part of the Los Angeles area for a beach resort in 1905 and his Venetian-inspired city included the Venice Canal Historic District, where Scarpa worked as a gondolier. After the resort failed in its first summer, Scarpa moved down to Newport, in search of work.
He eventually found a job doing what he did best: rowing people up and down the coasts of Newport Beach. On the Fourth of July, Independence Day in 1908, Scarpa strung up a few contained fireworks onto his gondola, in the form of Japanese lanterns. This was done, it is supposed, to impress a vacationing family from Pasadena, California. This became a hit with the Newport locals when, soon after he and eight other gondoliers lit up their gondolas for a small parade. Scarpa’s idea of illuminating the waters of Newport on the Fourth of July is credited as the world’s first lighted boat parade.
When World War I hit the entire country, it hit the gondola business heavily, as well. Nearly all of the rowers were forced to close up shop and find other work. The magical light spectacle of the Italian boats would resurface and bob back under the waves again and again until it finally reemerged for good in 1919.
Between 1919 and 1946, the parade was called the Tournament of Lights, and it was held in the summer time to support the growing tourist culture of Southern California. The parade also included a judging portion, where a small group of Newport residents could rate the lively lit liners and award the best and the brightest of them various trophy prizes.
After 1946, mariners decided to celebrate on a day full of the same joy and wonder as the fabulously lit boats themselves. Christmas Day, and the days surrounding, offered a chance for more people, visitors and locals, to view the beauty of the floating lights.
Despite the hardships the beloved festival has had to take on, it is said that there has been at least one gondola floating in Newport waters since Scarpa’s arrival in 1907.
It is through his strength and love of gondolas that the Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade is still in existence today. While the boats in the show are more often sailboats than gondolas, Scarpa did inspire another group of Venice-enthusiasts.
The Gondoliers’ Society of America is a group of people led by their love of gondolas and everything to do with them. Founded in 1983, the purpose of the society, according to their webpage, is “to provide a forum for gondola operators and enthusiasts’ fellowship… to never lose sight of the centuries of gondola heritage… [and] to ensure the gondolas’ safe passage through the twenty-first century and beyond, with reverence for the traditional and encouragement of the progressive.” To prove their versatility and commitment to the art, the society has members in states with warm waters like California and Florida, states with cold waters like New York and Virginia, and even land-locked states like Nebraska and Nevada.
Their president Greg Mohr, is the owner of Gondola Adventures Inc. in Newport, and is an active and enthusiastic participant in the Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade. He relays that for him, “[the parade] is a wonder of light, water, sound and motion” and that this year “as usual… did not disappoint”.
Mohr also runs his own gondola–based blog and takes pride in keeping the internet up to date with his beloved pastime: “I've tried to quit many times but I just can't walk away from the crescent-shaped boat.”
Enjoying the bright entertainment of the Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade is easy, whether it be from a dazzling Venetian gondolier, from a tall and shiny ship, or from the pier of the gorgeous coastline. The history belongs to everyone who encounters it, but those who understand and appreciate the antiquity of the splendor will most definitely leave the waters happiest.