Photography by Shelley Rose Photography

Given that Seattle has a combined two hundred miles of freshwater and saltwater shoreline, it should come as no surprise that boats are kind of a big deal here. And they’re not just used for warm-weather activities, either. The end of November marks the beginning of the Argosy Cruises Christmas Ship Festival, a beloved Pacific Northwest tradition that features festive on-boat activities and choir performances enjoyed by both those aboard and those on shore.

Argosy Cruises is a family-owned Washington State institution, first founded in 1949 as the Spring Street Water Taxi with trips across Elliott Bay. In 1951, it was upgraded to Seattle Harbor Tours, and, in 1962, they began ferrying visitors to Blake Island to learn about Tillicum Village and the history of Northwest Native American tribes. Eventually, the Spirit of Seattle was added to the fleet, becoming the new official Christmas Ship in 1987. Since then, many other cruise experiences have been added, and Seattle Harbor Tours transitioned into the Argosy Cruises it is today.

The Christmas Ship Festival runs until the grand finale on December 23. The two-and-a-half-hour cruises run on various weeknights as well as both afternoons and evenings on the weekend. Departure sites vary from docks located in the heart of the city, like Lake Union Park, to surrounding cities like Poulsbo, located twenty-five miles northwest of downtown Seattle. Each cruise also makes two performance stops at waterfront parks along the route.
One of the most popular Christmas Ship Festival events is the Parade of Boats, which involves a bevy of decorated boats motoring and floating their way from Lake Union through to the Fremont Cut. Boat owners in the community are encouraged to join, and Facebook polls determine the winners of categories like “Best Holiday Sailboat” and “Most Unique.”

What makes the Christmas Ship Festival even more special? There are three ways to experience it—on board the Spirit of Seattle, on board the 21+ Follow Boat, or at an onshore event, where the music from the ship is broadcasted through big speakers on the top deck.

For many festival goers, an evening on the Christmas Ship is an annual tradition for the whole family, both young and old. For me, it was a brand-new experience, and I was delighted by the twinkly lights of the Spirit of Seattle as I waited my turn to board the ship in South Lake Union. A Santa Claus waved me over for a photo, and I smiled like an excited eight-year-old. As I stepped onto the ship, I was greeted by an outgoing gentleman with a reindeer hat on, which felt promising. We boarded onto the lower deck, which featured a kids’ craft corner, made cozy with red, green, and yellow throw pillows and fairy lights. The red, neon candy canes made the whole nook look like an elf workshop.

Anxious to explore the rest of the ship, I headed up one flight of stairs to the main deck, similarly festooned in lights, along with garland, ribbons, and ornaments. Rows of chairs faced the front of the ship, with bench seating along the perimeter and a bar at the back. There was still one more deck to explore, but I had to go past the bar and outside to get there. (Wearing warm clothing was indeed a helpful tip from the Argosy website.) A short set of outdoor stairs later, the open-air top deck stretched in front of me in all its glory. On one side was a giant chimney and two giant-sized presents (which were actually speakers). In the middle of the deck was a towering Christmas tree, aglow with lights and decorated with gold bows. People snuggled together in front of it to take selfies. Despite the chilly air, watching the city go by from this vantage point was almost meditative. There was a cool trick of reverberation when the ship passed certain structures, making it sound like the houses and apartment buildings were broadcasting the music that was actually coming from the speakers on the deck. I’m sure there’s a scientific explanation, but suffice to say it added to the experience even without me understanding it.

I pried myself away from the romance of city lights and went inside to thaw. I spotted the man in the reindeer hat, who had positioned himself at the front of the rows of chairs as emcee of the evening. Armed with a microphone,
a family-friendly sense of humor, and prizes like blinking light necklaces, he held court with holiday-themed trivia, like “What was the name of the little blond elf in the stop-motion version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer?”
(Answer: Hermey.) I don’t know if his antics followed a script of any sort, but he was quite skilled at entertaining off the cuff. At one point, he challenged a family of five adults, who were all sporting ugly Christmas sweaters, to a runway walk-off. The winner sealed his victory by improvising an Irish jig to much audience applause. Later in the night, the emcee performed a G-rated Christmas-themed rap song as the kids bobbed and flailed around to the beat. Yes, it was as hilarious as it sounds.

One can really work up an appetite listening to trivia, and luckily the Spirit of Seattle had box meals and snack plates available for prepurchase, as well as at the bar. FareStart Catering, an organization that teaches life and work skills to those who are disadvantaged by poverty, prepared the food for the cruises. Revelers could also buy holiday cocktails (and kid-friendly mocktails) at the bar. And a gift shop corner near the bar had some assorted bagged snacks and holiday-themed socks and ties!

There was one more very important piece of the puzzle—music! the Northwest Girlchoir sailed along with guests and performed twenty-minute programs at both scheduled stops, accompanied by a pianist. Their beautiful harmonies were broadcast over outdoor speakers so people onshore could enjoy the serenade, too. The musical groups change with each sailing, so various local choral groups are featured. Conductor Sara Boos led a rousing sing-along of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” making creative gestures as prompts for our jubilant, but possibly forgetful, audience.

It wouldn’t be a proper Christmas Ship without a reading of ’Twas the Night Before Christmas, and this time Santa Claus did the honors, while surrounded by children gazing up at him from their perches on the floor. (Meanwhile, the man with the reindeer hat took a much-needed break.) As the reading unfolded, staff set up a display of Santa photos from preboarding, available for purchase as souvenirs of a night to remember. I stepped out for one last breath of cold air, this time out the front doors of the main deck. My favorite view was from the outside looking in, peering through the breath-frosted windows as they created an ethereal vignette that looked like something out of a kids’ storybook.

If you enjoy testing your knowledge of Christmas trivia, taking selfies against a city backdrop, and connecting with your family and friends over glasses of buttered rum, the Christmas Ship Festival is a Pacific Northwest tradition worth checking out.

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