I was reminded again this week about how boats and boating permeate all aspects our culture – our art, music, literature, film, history – not to mention vacation travel, and holiday traditions.On the timely subject of holiday traditions, this month’s boating calendar in Seattle includes the annual Christmas Ship Festival, which runs from late November through December 23rd. For those unfamiliar, the festively-adorned Christmas Ship (an ordinary tour boat by day – often the same one that provided my recent Port Tour) travels our waterways each evening with various choral groups and musicians aboard. The ship pauses at a few designated local parks and beaches while they perform a short set of music, a mini-concert.
A highlight of the nearly month-long festival is the Parade of Holiday Boats Night on December 18th. Decorated private vessels follow and accompany the Christmas Ship all month, but the Parade of Holiday Boats is spectacular in its pageantry and numbers. For boaters, these events provide a great reason to take the boat out, invite friends and family aboard, get creative with the decorations, and perhaps even win a prize.
For those on the shore in the various communities and neighborhoods, Christmas Ship visits are much more than a free concert, and have less to do with holiday lights and decorations since all of us can see those on homes throughout our cities.
What I think makes the Christmas Ship visits special is the anticipation and the waiting, whether it be with family, friends, or alone amid others in your community. For many, this is a unique opportunity to gather around a bonfire at night in winter. If it’s rainy or chilly out, there’s a good excuse to huddle under umbrellas together and stand close. It’s also a friendly environment in which to meet and talk with those you don’t know, yet. Most listen intently for the first sounds of music and the first view of the boats as they approach, so such conversations sometimes end abruptly once the boats arrive.
Visually, the reflection of the lights on the water and the outlines of the boats can be stunning, especially against the backdrop of the city buildings. It’s also fun and funny to see boats rocking and swaying to music; though occasionally, they fall out of step. This movement, and nighttime slow shutter speeds, can also be a challenge for amateur photographers.
Acoustics on the water generally ensure that the music sounds great — no bad seats! Sounds linger a long time, even after the boats are gone from view. Then, instantly, the spell is broken.
As with any 60+ year tradition, what happens over time is the knitting together of past and present.
Many of my own early Christmas Ship memories are not from a boat, but rather from the perspective of the shore or inland. I have early vague memories of hearing music from the ships (without having any knowledge of where it was coming from). As a young adult, I have memories of driving with friends to see the Christmas Ships; but we didn’t stay long as our interest was fleeting and a new restaurant was our true destination.
My fondest memory of the Christmas Ships is as an older adult. My partner and I took my mom, who was then in her late 80s, in a wheelchair, to the beach to see them. It was a cold night. All of us were bundled up. I had worried that she would be cold, but she was radiant. I also noticed that most of the children there didn’t seem to feel the cold either. They seemed the most joyful, in tune with the moment.
Note to self and my peers: my mom and the children seemed to have an edge here. Why is that?