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Christmas Ships: A Puget Sound Holiday Tradition

Published on: November 13, 2009

Argosy Chirstmas ship in SeattleView an updated list of Christmas Ship events for 2011!

My husband and I had been living in Seattle’s North Beach neighborhood for a couple of years the first time we heard it: an ethereal refrain echoing off the hills of Blue Ridge behind us and tumbling through the valley in which our neighborhood is tucked.

“What is that?” I asked.

Cocking his head quizzically, my husband said, “I think it’s the Christmas ships.”

We grabbed our then-20-month-old son, threw on our coats and ran the few blocks down to the waterfront.

What we found when we got there was an Argosy cruise ship decked out in lights and followed by a small fleet of similarly decorated boats. An on-board choir sang carols that were piped through speakers aimed directly at waterfront revelers.

The other folks on shore sipped hot drinks, basked in the heat thrown by a beach bonfire and watched what I have since learned is the largest holiday flotilla in the world, cruising to more than 45 coastal communities in the Puget Sound area each Christmas season.

The lead Christmas ship and several parade boats (some run by Argosy and others privately owned) make multiple stops along their route, where, for 20 minutes, a choir chosen from a rotating group of area ensembles performs holiday favorites.

The Christmas Ship Festival began in 1949 as the Seattle Civic Christmas Ship Festival, coordinated and sponsored by the Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation. In 1994, Argosy, formerly Seattle Harbor Tours, took over the Christmas ships and renamed the parade the Argosy Christmas Ship Festival.

For many, partaking in the Argosy Christmas ships festival has become a yearly holiday tradition.

“It gets me in the Christmas spirit,” says Kara Mattaini, a Wallingford mom of two whose family has been stringing lights across their own boat and cruising with the Christmas ships on Lake Washington for the past 20 years. “It’s a really unique experience.”

Nedra Fekete, a Ballard mom of two, likes the community aspect of watching the Christmas ships from shore. “Every year,” she says, “we plan to do something involving the Christmas ships.” But for Fekete and her family and friends, it’s often a pizza party followed by a trip to Golden Gardens, where, even during Seattle’s notorious rainy holiday season, they celebrate while watching the Christmas ships from the beach.

Fekete has also viewed the Christmas ships from Matthews Beach in Seattle’s Sand Point neighborhood, where, she says, the bonfire is “huge,” as well as from the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks. “At the locks,” she says, “you’re right there, up front.”

Tom Cashman, the executive director of the Foss Waterway Seaport in Tacoma, has ridden aboard the lead Christmas ship and also joined in the festivities on land. “The experiences are different,” he says, “but both are enjoyable.” He adds that seeing the community come down to greet the ship and witnessing, from onboard, the bonfire at Dash Point were highlights of his Christmas ship experience.

If you’re looking for a free, festive event for your family this holiday season, consider visiting one of the featured waterfront communities. Or, if you want to splurge and sail on the boats, Argosy offers several options, from a weekend night on the lead Christmas ship to “Value Nights” on a smaller boat in the flotilla.

Now, on December evenings when my husband and I hear the holiday serenade reverberating from the water, we know where the voices are coming from.

And, if we aren’t already on the beach waiting, we grab our coats, both of our children and head for the bonfire to meet up with neighbors we know we’ll find there.

Angie McCullagh is a freelance writer/blogger living in Seattle with her husband and two children. You can find her at

Don't Miss the 2011 Christmas Ships

  • The Christmas ships tour Lake Washington, Lake Union and Puget Sound every night from Nov. 26 to Dec. 23, 2011
  • Lead Christmas ships include a choir, sing-alongs, a Santa visit and activities for children.
  • For a nightly schedule (including bonfire locations) and information on booking a cruise, visit Argosy Cruises.

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