The Venice Canals Holiday Boat Parade continues an intimate community tradition

By Paul M. J. Suchecki

Kids were the stars of skipper Virginia Benitez’s Mermaid Island skiff at this year’s Venice Canals Holiday Boat Parade
Photo by Paul M.J. Suchecki

As the sun set over its canals on Sunday, Dec. 9, Venice hosted its own holiday boat parade – a simpler but more intimate affair that was as much fun as its bigger sibling parade held in Marina del Rey the night before.

The colorful event was founded 37 years ago, back when the canals were run down and the idea that a canal-side home could sell for $1 million per bedroom was preposterous, yet the parade still holds its grassroots Venetian charm.

This year’s theme was, “It’s a Small World,” an appropriate reminder to skippers to be sure to duck or decorate their watercraft such that they could clear the canals’ low-arched bridges. Not
all did. One brilliantly decorated Christmas tree in a skiff named The Bentley was restricted to the west side of the canals. Still, the skipper became a crowd favorite when he started tossing presents ashore from under the tree. One barge full of paddlers only managed to clear a bridge decorated as the Eiffel Tower by everybody ducking as low as possible.

“I like the community aspect of it, seeing people come together to put on a special event,” said 14-year canals resident Bill Shinderman, who hosted his annual viewing party from the deck of his home.

From shore, there were plenty of fun sights to behold, from a barge that hosted a teenaged rock ‘n’ roll band to three Santas paddling a green canoe with four large, round green ornaments dangling over a sign that promoted “Peas on Earth.” There was also a canoe festooned in Hanukkah blue and topped with a Mylar balloon inviting everybody to enjoy the festival of lights as well as a barge named El Pirata, graced by stuffed polar bears at its four corners. Carolers sang “White Christmas” from one boat while another named Mermaid Island carried an adorable crew of kids (three in mermaid costumes), manned by skipper Virginia Benitez. (One little boy almost missed the boat and began to cry inconsolably, but Benitez thought quickly, moving three little girls to the bow and asking the boy to sit with her and another shipmate at the stern. She hadn’t planned on a six-person crew, but everybody, except for her, was pint-sized, so it worked out.)

As holiday lights sparkled from the boats, the ornamented homes and bridges created a festive backdrop. In fact, decorating the canal homes has become competitive. Judges chose the winners on Saturday. The winner of the Venice Canals Association’s Best Dressed Homes Contest was the site of a nonstop dance party during the parade.

“It’s my favorite event on the canals,” said Sandy Berens, the parade chairperson for the past 19 years. “It always attracts a crowd.”

The parade has become so popular in recent years that Berens and her staff are concerned that too many people will learn about this hyper-local community event. When approached for an interview beforehand she said, “We don’t need any more publicity.”

In fact, the Venice Canals Association website had no information about this year’s parade ahead of time, causing skipper Benitez to plaintively call out to the crowd, “Where’s the starting line?”

If you’re interested in attending this fun and somewhat secretive event next year, simply show up the day after the Marina del Rey Holiday Boat Parade. Venice’s holiday water celebration typically begins at 4 p.m. at the intersection of Eastern and Carroll canals, but don’t say who told you.