Since Western colonization, aquatic cavalcades have skirted the coast of Florida. First, the Timucuan traversed the state in dugouts that few records bare a trace of, but in the odd drought or storm, one of the mythic vessels appears again. Second, the Spaniards arrived with their flagships and longboats—a pall of death and misfortune trailing behind them. Then the French and British, too, with a similar fate waiting in store for them and for those they came into contact with. Finally, when the land of flower became an American territory, slave ships made the passage across the Atlantic in an awful and unlawful parade toward these very shores where men, women, and children were sold into slavery—maybe the single most troubling and haunting waypoint in our country’s past.

Soon, Navy ships crossed each other’s course at the mouth of the St. Augustine inlet. But not long after the Civil War, photographs of another type of parade emerged—one more festive and less haunted. Faithful bodies lined up along the shore, staking out spaces along docks or at the water’s edge, to watch what has become an omnipresent tradition here in the Sunshine State: holiday boat parades, of course!

A slow procession of marine vessels idling along some byway strung up with garland and lights often marks the end of the year and its gaggle of holidays. In a stream of halogen bulbs and varied hulls, we look out onto the water with wonder—with hope for what the next year might bring and what we might carry with us from the current one. It’s a moment to break away from that obnoxious cousin or insurmountable to-do list plaguing us and just look out onto the water silently. It’s a moment to be still, to reflect, and even to heal. The quiet act of watching is one more banal yet rather profound opportunity to think on where we were and where we’re going in the year to come.

Holland, Karl E., 1919-1993. Gasparilla boat parade – Tampa, Florida. 1966. Black & white photoprint, 4 x 5 in. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

In Northeast Florida, at least in a more official capacity, parades have taken place for over 30 years. From the St. Johns in downtown Jacksonville south to the ditch in Palm Valley, the annual events have become mainstays in the onslaught of year-end ceremonies. But a cursory look into the archives reveals a tradition reaching back more than a century and to every corner and backwater ribbon in the state—some larger or ornate and some less polished and more redneck-ed. The spectrum is just one more testament to what this state ultimately is: a study in contrasts as complex as it is contradictory.

In 1911, a stream of star spangled banners cut across some of the earliest photographs of boat parades in the state. The photographs—made by “Porter Photo”—show a parade on Lake Eustis celebrating the birthday of our first president, George Washington. In another, a crowd assembles along the waterfront, huddled up along docks and balconies, waving to those passing by. Behind them, a stand of cypress trees quietly watches on.

Gasparilla boat parade – Tampa, Florida. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

Today, the spectrum of parades spans Ft. Lauderdale’s litany of superyachts dressed up like Christmas trees to St. Augustine’s cadre of skiffs illuminated by sodium bulbs, and it’s safe to say that Florida has wholly leaned in to the convention. In Jacksonville and Palm Valley, there’s no fee to participate with your own boat but a simple registration process you can find online, and if you want to watch, it’s a matter of staking claim to your spot. If anything can be gleaned from the parade cognoscenti in the Crescent City—where the New Orleans police department has an entire division devoted to parades—bring a ladder for your kids’ line of sight. Oh, and keep in mind that spots go fast—both on the water and on land.

Looking through the thin record that spans a century of boat parades here, not much rises to the surface save a few photographs and postcards, and even those are sparse. Of course, you have Gasparilla in Tampa, Winterfest down south, a whole host of weirdness further south as you venture into the Conch Republic. But it’s hard to piece together some semblance of connective tissue among it all.Trying to conjure up my own memories of parades, I remember growing up on the Gulf Coast and think of a special wave we often surf in the winter when the periodic cold fronts blanket the state. I think of this because sometimes when the light would fall away across the Gulf and the temperature dropped 20 degrees in just an hour, a barrage of people would line up along the inlet preceding the holiday boat parade come dusk.

Coming in from the water, the fine quartz sand glowed with the passing boat’s lights—cuddy-cabins dressed up as Santa’s sleigh, schooners’ masts turned menorahs, and a constellation of other boats all bouncing along as families carved out some space along the water like those folks in Eustis more than a hundred years ago. Quickly, I peeled off my wetsuit and threw on some clothes. It was the end of the year, and I needed to make my way across the parking lot to find my space at the water’s edge to watch the boats pass by.