Each December, Santa Barbara’s Christmas celebrations take to the water as hundreds of families gather to watch boats sail in the annual Parade of Lights at Stearns Wharf and the Santa Barbara Harbor. This is not just any boat parade. It is a boat parade with lights and fireworks, preceded by a winter wonderland for children.

The long-standing tradition begins at 3pm as locals explore Santa’s Village on the City Pier at the harbor where children play in tons of snow and then enjoy a visit from Santa Claus himself. Santa's arrival is greeted with cheers from the throngs of children anxious to get a picture with Old St. Nick. The Parade of Light then begins at 5:30pm.

The waterfront’s signature winter event includes a fleet of dozens of vessels following a route from Leadbetter Beach east to the Cabrillo Arts Pavilion, then back along the shore to Stearns Wharf for all to see. Every year the boats deck their decks with festive holiday lights and decorations before setting sail. Dozens of local boaters from the 1,100 slips in the harbor compete in the parade. Judging takes place at Stearns Wharf and boats are awarded donated cash and prizes in five categories.

Best viewing locations include Stearns Wharf and the breakwater at Santa Barbara Harbor. Word on the street is that the best viewing of the boats is from the breakwater which is conveniently right next to Santa's Village where the day's festivies begin. The Parade of Lights always ends with a bang. Immediately following the parade is a fireworks show you won’t want to miss. The 5-7 minute fireworks display starts at about 7pm over West Beach.

Photos by Christopher Bell