Argosy Christmas Ship Festival is merry way to see city lights from the water

Half an hour into my Argosy Christmas Ship cruise I was juggling a box dinner, a hot cider, a grouchy teenager and a headache.

Sitting knee-to-knee with what seemed like hundreds of Seattleites wearing loud sweaters and Santa hats, I tried desperately to smile at the 20 young children screaming “Ho, ho, ho!” 3 feet away from me while slightly-out-of-tune carols blared from tinny speakers.

If these were my holiday memories, they weren’t the kind I’d be putting on Facebook.

And then I staggered up to the boat’s top deck — and realized what this 65-year-old tradition was all about. Hundreds of lights glittered around me in the clear winter darkness: buildings, bridges, houseboats, the Space Needle and the flotilla of sparkling boats following our Christmas Ship. It was bitingly cold, but beautiful — and a unique way to explore Seattle during the holidays.

Of course, not all Christmas Ship experiences have to be like mine. I took the sailing out of Kirkland, but only managed to arrive 10 minutes before the 5 p.m. departure, by which time all the smart folks who do this every year had snagged the prime seats by the windows and on the middle deck, where you can hear the choir live. Those same folks also seemed not to be eating the box dinners — which meant they could suavely sip hot toddies with friends rather than spilling salad all over their Christmas sweaters. (It probably also meant they got something more sophisticated for dinner than fruit, cheese and a sprout-filled Thai wrap.)

And one of them obviously said something to the crew about the over-loud speakers, because for the second set of jazzed-up carols by Sonus Boreal and their four-piece band, the volume was way down.

It was obvious that I was one of very few Christmas Ship newbies on board — which you’d expect from an event that’s been cruising Seattle-area waters since 1949.

“What’s special to me about the festival is that it’s a lot of families’ holiday tradition,” said cruise director Diane Driscoll, who’s been working the Christmas Ships for 10 years. “They’ll take the same cruise at the same time, bring their loved ones. It’s seeing that beauty of the magic that’s special.”

After we left the Kirkland dock, one of Driscoll’s duties was to bring everyone’s attention to the fact that in a few minutes we’d all be on air, as the choir’s music was projected out over the water to the people huddled on the Kirkland dock. The middle deck hastily grew quiet, and parents shepherded small children down to the supervised art area on the bottom deck, which wouldn’t be miked up. After a set of jazzy carols, the ship began to sail across Lake Washington. Piped holiday-pop came through the speakers and Driscoll, now accompanied by Santa, started to organize the kids into the excruciatingly loud “ho, ho, ho” contest.

“I think that’s the loudest it’s ever been,” Driscoll said afterward in awe.

Santa Al, taking a break between photo ops, agreed. He’s been working the ships for 30 years now and still enjoys it.

“Some nights it’s the shy kid who warms up, sometimes it’s baby’s first Christmas,” he said through a thick (authentic) white beard.

But the adults on board were enjoying the cruise just as much. On the top outside deck, there was a party atmosphere, with speakers pumping bass and engines throbbing. Couples danced, wearing fluffy novelty wolf hats and sipping from flashing-ice-cube drinks.

By 6:30 p.m., we were passing underneath the castle towers of the Montlake Bridge, and as we sailed into Lake Union, the Seattle skyline lit up in front of us, all glittering skyscrapers with the Space Needle glowing white above them. The boats following us (a couple of Argosy ships and some smaller private vessels) lit up the black water with green, red and blue, and overhead a pale half-moon shone silver.

We swung around to Gasworks Park in Fremont, where a crowd was gathered around a bonfire to hear the choir. As the music floated over the water, I sipped my hot cider and started to realize why this could become a tradition.

By 7 p.m., we were heading back to Kirkland. On the middle deck, Driscoll was leading a Christmas trivia contest, while Santa handed out rubber ducks as prizes, and the choir took a dinner break. Down below, kids were quiet and drawing, and parents held babies and chatted. On the top deck, the mood was calm as the ship sailed by glowing houseboats. Quiet piano played, couples embraced. Santa began reading “A Visit From St. Nicholas.”

At 7:30 p.m., and the Kirkland dock appeared outside the foggy windows. Driscoll urged us to buy our Santa photos, taken as we boarded. Our photo featured an embarrassed husband, shivering son, glowering teenager, stressed-out mother (me) and Santa looking like he was onto his 300th smile. I decided not to spend the $15, and we all filed out onto the icy dock into the winter streets.

An annual tradition? Maybe not for everyone. But as a way to see the city’s holiday lights from a unique viewpoint? Definitely.