Sharing the Light

Parade of Lights turns 40

One of the most celebrated events on the Chesapeake Bay began humbly in 1981, when a guy named Jim Langer, who lived aboard his boat in Spa Creek, strung Christmas lights up in his rigging and paraded around Annapolis Harbor. The idea caught on and the one-man show quickly turned into a multi-boat parade. By 1988, the event was proclaimed the official Maryland Winter Celebration. Now celebrating its 40th anniversary, the Eastport Yacht Club’s Lights Parade will feature dozens of boats ranging from a 75-foot skipjack from the Annapolis Maritime Museum to smaller sailboats, dressed-up Boston Whalers and more, gathered to dazzle more than 30,000 spectators surrounding the harbor on Saturday, December 10, from 6 to 8 p.m.

While the event is truly magical, it takes a huge effort on the part of scores of volunteers to make it happen. At the Eastport Yacht Club, all of the organizers are known as “elves.” “Everyone is an elf,” says Heather Ersts, former commodore of the club and “Chief Elf” of the parade from 2005 to 2008. “Everybody’s got a job. The skippers put in days and days of work to make that happen. Nobody’s getting paid and it costs a lot of money to decorate the boats, so it’s truly a gift to the City of Annapolis. Everyone involved is involved because they absolutely love it, they bring the joy through the boats and through the spirit of the evening.”

Tom and Trudy Stalder have served as Co-Chief Elves for the past four years, though in 2020, the event was canceled due to the pandemic pandemonium, and in 2021, it was canceled last minute on the day-of due to predictions of very high wind. 

Nobody wanted a repeat of the parade in 1991, when a cold front burst through the harbor just before the parade was about to start, with wind gusting up to 48 mph. Most of the participating boats were already under way when that happened, Tom recalls. The Chief Elf at the time, the late Robin Allison, made the call that the show must go on, and so, “the skippers braved the elements and provided a spectacular display of seamanship in the harbor.”  

Safety is key, Tom notes. There’s even a designated “Safety Elf.” In 1999, the parade route was extended up Spa Creek, through the drawbridge and up to Truxtun Park. According to Tom, that proved to be another challenge for the participating skippers. “It’s really dark and shallow up there.” 

As a precaution, Tom has announced that the organizers have a rain date this year for the first time. “If we know the weather’s going to be bad, we’ll run the Friday prior to the normal Saturday date,” he says. “We’ll know pretty much in advance what the weather’s going to be, so we’ll make that call at our skipper’s meeting on Thursday.”

Navigating in the parade is a challenge to begin with, not just because of the weather, but because it takes place at night. “There are lots of lights on the boats,” meaning lots of red and green lights that interfere with lighted navigation markers. The parade route takes participants through mooring fields, under the drawbridge several times, and up and down unlit channels. 

The entries are awarded prizes for various categories. Last year, the Best in Show award went to a sailboat whose mast was decorated as a palm tree and the deck and rigging lit up as a “Pirate’s Treasure Island.” Past favorites include a boat with the outline of the “Fragile” lamp from the movie A Christmas Story, a golden angel blowing a trumpet, and the all-time classic, “The Flasher,” an animated display that shows a leeringly exhibitionistic Grinch flinging open his overcoat to reveal a glowing Christmas tree. That made its last appearance in 2003.

Of course, the fun isn’t just in watching the lighted boats. In 2001 there was the first Lights Parade wedding as well as the first Lights Parade proposal. Participation in the event is open to the public. “You don’t have to be a member of EYC to register a boat for the parade,” Trudy Stalder says. “In fact, most of the skippers aren’t members. Sail, power or dinghy, it doesn’t matter— decorated is the key word.” “And safe!” Tom adds. 

You can even participate from shore. Spectators bundle up and crowd Annapolis City Dock to watch the spectacle, lining the Spa Creek Bridge and packing the street-end parks to watch the boats go by. Restaurants and hotels with Spa Creek views throw viewing parties, as do those lucky enough to have boats at downtown city marinas and slips. The whole thing feels like very festive street party, and has become a central part of the holidays in Annapolis. And not just there; coastal towns around Bay took inspiration and now boat parades are a tradition from Alexandria, Va., which celebrated 20 years in 2019, to Havre de Grace, Md., begun in 2021.