Experiencing an old Seattle holiday tradition


December 28, 2022

Steve Edwards Photo This photo was taken from O.O. Denny Park on the shoreline of Lake Washington near Kirkland, Washington. The large boat to the left is the Spirit of Seattle carrying about 200 passengers and a choral group. The smaller, lighted boat to the right is the 21+ Follow Boat, an adults only boat. The boats were part of Seattle's month long Christmas Ships Festival. Note the four kayakers in the lower middle of the photo listening to the music.

A man at the church we've been attending while dog/house sitting in Woodinville, Washington, was offering to take folks on his 50-foot boat to cruise in Seattle's annual Christmas Ship Festival. The festival involves lighted boats cruising on Lake Washington and the Puget Sound. The parade visits various lakeside communities and presents short musical programs for folks gathered on the shoreline. The month long festival has been operating for nearly 80 years. Despite having lived a couple of Christmases in the Seattle area, we'd never heard of the event. It looked like it might be fun.

Looking at the dates of the Festival we realized we would be headed back to Montana. When our house/dog sitting hosts asked us to stay on another month we decided to see if we could participate in the Christmas Ship Festival. Here's how we experienced this unique Seattle holiday tradition.

The idea of Christmas ships started in Chicago

Back in the early 1900's immigrants in Chicago wanted Christmas trees for the holidays. Boats hauling the trees from Wisconsin and Michigan became known as "Christmas Ships." Later in Seattle someone got the idea to create a 'lighted boat parade' and cruise Puget Sound and its connected lakes during the Christmas holidays. The first official parade was held in the late 1940's. By the early 1950's the Seattle Parks Department added "bonfire gatherings" at parks where the Christmas Ships would pass and folks on land could enjoy the lights.

In 1993 Argosy Cruise, a major Seattle-based boat tour company, began offering anyone the opportunity to ride in comfort on existing touring boats during the boat parades. Now the "Spirit of Seattle," a three-decked 115-foot tour boat comfortably seats 200 passengers as they take the one and half hour tour to various communities during the month long celebration.

Argosy also offers seats on a "21+ Follow Boat" a smaller boat for adults only. This boat follows the Spirit of Seattle on the designated route while passengers party, participate in an ugly sweater contest and listen to the concert broadcast from the larger ship. Private boats follow the big ship and add their Christmas lights to the parade.

The Christmas Ship Festival has optional ways to participate

Boarding an Argosy ship is not the only way to enjoy the Christmas Ship Festival. The annual Festival kicks off just after Thanksgiving with a large parade of boats that can be viewed from the docks of Seattle with downtown lights as backdrop. Then a series of evening cruises begins with paying passengers on the Spirit of Seattle and the 21+Follow Boat (the basic ticket price is $72 per person and most cruises sell out in advance). The one and a half hour cruise makes its way to some 40 communities during the month. Other folks gather, for free, at Seattle parks along the shore to enjoy a bonfire, view the boat parade and hear Christmas music.

The cruise schedule is published well in advance. Our daughter has lived in Seattle for 24 years and never attended a Christmas Ships parade. She offered to take me, Sherry and a couple of the grandsons to O.O. Denny Park on the east shore of Lake Washington. We went to the park early as our daughter told, "The parking is minimal so we best get there early." We parked about an hour ahead of the ship's arrival and headed to a park shelter where the local neighborhood association was serving coffee and hot chocolate. Shortly a crew from Seattle Parks arrived and got a roaring bonfire going.

"Journal" correspondent Steve Edwards and wife Sherry pose from the shores of Lake Washington with their daughter and two of their grandsons at the Christmas Ships Festival. The lighted Spirit of Seattle, the main passenger ship used during the Festival, can be seen above the family. And, yes, it does snow in Seattle-see white streaks in photo, that's big snowflakes.

Despite snow falling a sizeable crowd gathered-some folks moving down to the shore, others still standing around the bonfire waiting for the ships. The mood was, well, holiday-like. The snow continued to fall but the fog lifted a bit and we could see the city of Shoreline across the water. The ships arrived and stayed off-shore. In addition to the big ship and the follow boat, there were several other lighted private boats in the parade. Someone in the shore crowd opined, "There are fewer boats than normal, I'm guessing the snow and fog caused a few to stay home."

Standing on shore we listened to the live concert. The sound system was very good. Each night different musical groups present the concert. From the schedule groups varied from high school choirs to community groups, like the Peninsula Community Chorus from Gig Harbor (south of Seattle) that presented the music at O.O. Denny Park. I was especially impressed with four kayakers barely visible in the dark floating together between us and the ships. They were huddled together for warmth and stability as they listened to the music.

Contributing to the holiday spirit

Argosy Cruise donates part of the income from cruise ticket and photo sales to the Seattle Times Fund for Those in Need. This year Argosy expects to raise $45,000 for the charitable fund that provides more than three million dollars annually to Seattle charities. The Christmas Ship Festival is not only a fun part of the holiday, it does its part to help make the season merry for others.


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