….. For Our Community
A December 1989 meeting of the Punta Gorda Boat Club found Tom Little, Tom Hiltine and Captain Al Rogers discussing Christmas traditions. Captain Al persuaded Little and Hiltine to decorate their boats to light up the harbor with a “string of lights” for Christmas. On the Saturday night before Christmas that year Little, Rogers, Hiltine and three additional decorated vessels gathered in front of Captain Al’s home on Edgewater Lake and proceeded onto the Peace River to light up the Harbor. Some of these boats continued to decorate the harbor each night until Christmas, the goal being to create a moving string of Christmas lights across the harbor. The following year they did it again, extending the route to include Fishermans Village. For the third year Tom Little said ”Why don’t we include some of the Punta Gorda canals, and go along Hibiscus Drive?” and thus was the beginning of the Peace River Boat Parade.
One December night in 2001, after relocating to a new home on the rim canal of Punta Gorda Isles, Tom Little strolled around his house after dark, looking up and down the canal for as far as he could see. In all directions, the only thing to see was…..well………. nothing, just darkness. The holiday tradition of putting up lights was completely absent in his neighborhood. Tom took action and invited 16 friends to decorate their boats and meet him on the Saturday night prior to Christmas Eve at Sunset Lake on the rim canal to anchor out until sunset with hors d’oeuvres and snacks and at 6 PM to begin to parade along the rim canal all the way up to Yellowfish Lagoon. And thus Tom Little created THE SATURDAY NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS EVE BOAT PARADE.
Interest in the event quickly grew. Tom contacted the boat and yacht clubs and with a little help from his friends, developed a grassroots level of interest in the event. In appreciation of the Parade, folks along the Parade route began to decorate the canal side of their homes, and the idea of decorating the waterside caught on the south side of Punta Gorda Isles. Homes not on the Parade route got into the act as well, taking advantage of the effect of the shimmering, glimmering reflections of light dancing on the water. The lit canals throughout the Isles result in boaters coming out to explore the lit canals from early December through New Year’s Eve. This has evolved over the years and now during the weeks prior to the holidays, boaters regularly cruise the canals of the Isles in the same fashion that folks up north used to load up the car to tour the neighborhood Christmas light displays.
The decorated seawalls in the Isles created a well-lit Parade route. Winds were not a concern within the broad, sheltered Isles canals. The minimum 6’ deep canals, eliminated the problems of low tides elsewhere and the easily navigable parade caught the interest of more and more boaters who found a delightful way to treat their crew of family and friends to a very special event, not found anywhere else. As the Parade grew, so did the crowds. As the crowds grew, so did the Parade. The 100’ wide canals allowed the boaters to pass within 50’ of the spectators, just like an old fashioned downtown department store parade. In the early years the boaters would shout out “Merry Christmas”, “Ho, Ho, Ho” or simple “Yah-Yah” greetings to the spectators. This lead to the spectators cheering back to the boaters and crews and what started out as a silent, lighted boat parade began to grow into something interactive, where the crowd’s participation became as essential to the event as the Parade itself.
Given our local boater demographics, we both lose and gain participating boaters every year. At the conclusion of the 2009 Parade, Harris Bowers, having participated in the Parade since 2003, joined the Parade committee with a focus on the ongoing sustainability of a grassroots event with no budget, no trophies, no awards, no prizes, no backing and no advertising. For the 2010 Parade we ramped up publicity and developed an informational website.
In an effort to encourage themed boats, Bowers adopted a decorating motif for his boat featuring the famous leg-lamp from the film “A Christmas Story” for the 2010 Parade. During the 2010 event his crew heard spectators shouting encouraging comments at the themed boat; “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid” “Fraaa-geeee-layyy” “I triple dog dare you” among others, however the most fascinating comment shouted from the shoreline that night was the hundreds of times the words “THANK YOU” were repeated. It was this response that led to the 2011 Parade tagline of “MAKE A JOYFUL NOISE” , encouraging boaters to introduce themes, onboard music and the crews waving, dancing, or singing, and encouraging the crowds to respond with sleigh bells, cowbells, noisemakers and enthusiastic cheers. The crowds showed up to cheer the boaters on and the boaters went to the extraordinary effort to decorate their boats for the pleasure of their crew and to truly put on a real show for the spectators – a mere 50’ away, close enough to make eye contact. Reaction to the Joyful Noise theme encouraged Tom and Harris to further inspire boaters to add sound and action to their boats. Live music, trumpeters, drummers, carolers, musicians and yes, even disco dancers have entertained our crowds. The result: The MAKE A JOYFUL NOISE theme continues to this day!
With coverage from WINK TV, the local press and news accounts mentioning the event including several notable press mentions, including the New York Times, the Parade has in evolved into the single largest annual event in Punta Gorda Isles, and continues to be the largest event of it’s kind on the entire Gulf Coast. In fact, the number of party trays prepared at Publix for that night actually exceeds the output for Super Bowl Sunday.
Department store parades have the established tradition of a Santa Claus at the end of the Parade. Tom Little established our tradition where the first boat announcing the start of the Parade is full of live angels, dressed in white, an angel trumpeter at the bow and a simple, large illuminated JOY.
For 2012, the Parade introduced the now familiar red flashing arrow signs, to help boaters navigate the turns. In 2013 THE LAMPLIGHTERS, a group of community volunteers was organized with the specific purpose to help folks along the Parade route who might be out of town during the holidays, or physically unable to run a string of lights along the canal. Lamplighter Volunteers help to extend canal lights to vacant lots along the Parade route, creating a continuous string of lights. Folks wanting to donate lights and extension cords drop them off at the PGICA building. Also in 2013 we began to offer free decorating workshops where boaters and neighbors could learn all the tips, tricks and decorating secrets from the pros. In 2014 we created a group of volunteer, Parade Ambassadors who promote the Parade within their individual organizations.
Recognizing the growth of the grass roots event had created an increasing liability risk for the Parade organizers, in 2014 the Parade became an official event, sponsored by the Punta Gorda Isles Civic Association. The PGICA funded the 2014 purchase of the lighted signboards, now required for participating boaters. Doug Buuck who has been a friend to the Parade, and a participant for many years joined the team as vice chairman in 2016.
While the boaters, spectators, parade route and organizers have and will continue to change over time The SATURDAY NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS EVE BOAT PARADE has many enduring, established traditions.
The show is presented by the entire local boating community, and is not limited to Punta Gorda Isles boaters. The first boat, announcing the arrival of the Parade features angles, trumpets and one illuminated word: JOY
Always, The Saturday Night Before Christmas Eve Boat Parade
We raft up or anchor out prior to the JOYFUL NOISE and lighting of the fleet at 6:00 PM
Parade routes do change from time to time. The current route map is found at www.this_years_parade_route.com
The biggest annual event in the Isles is a magnificent Christmas gift to the community.
You can set your watch by the date, it’s ALWAYS the Saturday Night Before Christmas Eve.