Chattanooga Lighted Boat Parade lights path to holiday season

photo Boats prepare to pass under the Walnut Street Bridge in the annual Lighted Boat Parade on Friday in Chattanooga.

Most came for the reflective lights. Some for the holiday songs. Others, to bid one last hurrah to autumn and embrace the start of winter weather.

Whatever floats your boat.

Several thousand festive Chattanoogans gathered downtown Friday night after their Thanksgiving and shopping schedules to observe the city's annual Lighted Boat Parade along the Tennessee River.

Sailors of 40 boats decorated their crafts in Christmas lights and ornaments to make the Scenic City riverfront glow. The ships officially started their voyage at 6:54 p.m. -- but a special crewman dressed as Santa Claus crossed under the Walnut Street Bridge at exactly 7 p.m.

"I see him, I see him," Tyler Belford, 8, shouted down to the man in red. "Don't fall in, Santa!"

And if the neon-tinted ripples of the midnight black river banks weren't enough to stir the holiday spirits, a fireworks show kicked the holiday spirit into full gear at 8 p.m., and blasts could be heard throughout the downtown area.

Although the 29th annual ceremony of water-based well-wishers has been rooted in Chattanooga boating tradition, a new aspect of the celebration was introduced when Gifts That Give Hope provided shoppers the opportunity to honor loved ones with donations to local nonprofits.

In lieu of traditional gifts -- like colognes or fruit baskets -- Gifts That Give Hope opened the door for citizens to help organizations ranging from national holiday staple Toys for Tots to Chattanooga CARES, which reaches out to the sick, elderly and homeless of Chattanooga.

Gift-givers each received a special holiday card to dedicate their donation to a loved one or friend. Jill Yarbrough, daughter of the late philanthropist and businessman Porter Yarbrough, dedicated the alternative fair to him to continue his legacy of giving back within the city.

Jill watched within the noisy Walker Pavilion as dozens of grade-school children drew warm holiday cards for strangers they would soon be helping.

"Lots of kids have everything they need, and they don't yet understand there are even people their age who still need things," she said. "We're just here to teach them how to open their hearts at a young age."

Stephen Clark, on the other hand, was working to create a more enjoyable holiday season with his voice. He and three church group companions stood outside the pavilion -- green and red folders in hand -- and serenaded passersby with holiday carols.

Although the waterfront area was chilly, he was adamant he made the right choice to sing.

"We've got our hot tea and it's not too bad," Clark said. "We're just here to spread the cheer."

Contact staff writer Jeff LaFave at or 423-757-6592. Follow him on Twitter at @PressLaFave.

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