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An inside look at the annual Alexandria Holiday Boat Parade of Lights

Boaters from around the region take to the water for the 20th annual celebration, featuring the likes of Snoopy, a menorah, Santa Claus and more.

jay atkinson in elvis costume by boat
Jay Atkinson dressed as Elvis one year to match his boat’s theme during the Holiday Boat Parade of Lights. (Photo courtesy of Jay Atkinson)

“It’s been cold, it’s been warm, it’s been crazy and it’s always fun.”

That’s how Richmond-resident Jay Atkinson describes his years of participation in the Alexandria Holiday Boat Parade of Lights—a festive affair that has lit up the Potomac River for one night only for the past 20 years. 

The tradition began when Lorraine Lloyd—an Alexandria resident who joined nonprofit Visit Alexandria in 1999—decided to combine her love for boating and the history of Old Town as a former seaport together to form one unique, holiday-themed showcase. 

boats lit up on potomac
Photo courtesy of Visit Alexandria

“I ran up and down docks all summer long with fliers because, you know, it was before email and social media. It was really a grassroots operation,” says Lloyd, now the senior vice president of sales and international marketing for Visit Alexandria. “The first year we had 14 or so boats and the following year we had about 50.”

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For those who join the parade, choosing a theme is completely up to the boater and his or her crew. From sailboats decked out in film-focused storylines to yachts boasting thousands of colorful lights atop the deck, there is no restriction for creativity on the water, yet the preparation behind it can take anywhere from weeks to months of time. 

menorah on lit up boat
This boat won the award for most spirited crew in 2017. (Photo courtesy of Visit Alexandria)

“It takes a lot of electricity for all of those lights to run properly, so you have to make sure you have enough power on the boat,” says Atkinson. “And even before that, you want to make sure you have a fun theme. It’s easy to string lights, but to have a theme project over a distance of water and grab attention is really the key.”

To show appreciation for the boaters’ hard work, there are awards given to several crews for things like most enthusiastic crew and most outside-the-box design. Plus, the majority of participants receive cash prizes or packages from local organizations and businesses. 

“It’s cold, expensive and sometimes nasty weather, so we always try to make it fun for them [the boaters] and show our appreciation in different ways,” says Lloyd. “Without them, we wouldn’t have the parade.” 

Jay Atkinson and his crew once dressed a 14-foot kayak in a shark costume and placed it in the water attached to the boat for the annual event. (Photo courtesy of Jay Atkinson)

In the past, Atkinson and his crew have donned his boat in themes like “Snoopy Saves Christmas,” “Santa Jaws,” “Gone Fishin’” and so much more. While he has since moved to Richmond and no longer participates in the affair, Atkinson continues to come up to Alexandria to watch the annual event from a seat in the judge’s boat.  

The Holiday Boat Parade of Lights occurs on Saturday, Dec. 7, in conjunction with the city’s biggest weekend of holiday traditions, including the Scottish Christmas Walk Parade. Plus, before the boats take to the river at 5:30 p.m., there will be dockside festivities from 2 to 8 p.m., including live music, a pop-up beer garden from Port City Brewing Company, hands-on activities and more.  

“What’s nice about our event is that it changes, in that the boaters do different decorations each year,” says Lloyd. “When it all comes together, it’s really just so exciting and beautiful.”

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