Venice’s Love of Parades Reaches Its Height During the Holidays

Who doesn’t love a parade? They are an indelible part of the American experience, evoking images straight out of Norman Rockwell’s paintings. Nevertheless, Americans can’t take full credit for them. Cave paintings in Spain depict the earliest known parades (just imagine those cave dwellers proudly marching along with their bison) and in ancient Greece, parades included not only gladiators and chariots, but also animals, floats and music. Feel familiar?

Although they don’t typically invite Neanderthals or gladiators to participate, Venetians—those who dwell in and around Venice—work hard every year to hold parades that bring the community together in celebration of the things we all love.

The city’s need for parades is almost a genetic inheritance. When the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus had its home in Venice, the entire circus would arrive at the local train depot, after a long season of performing throughout the country, and parade through the town—lions and elephants traipsing down the streets with the trapeze artists and bearded lady—to their winter training quarters on the south side of Venice island.

The circus parade is long gone, but it has been replaced by a St. Patty’s Day parade to celebrate shamrocks, leprechauns and beer, and a Sun Fiesta parade to celebrate the advent of slightly lower humidity and the fact that we live in paradise. There is a Veteran’s Day Parade to honor the sacrifice U.S. soldiers have made for our country.

But perhaps the most treasured parade traditions are the holiday parades. The Venice Christmas Boat Parade and the Venice Holiday Parade celebrate giving, joy and, of course, shopping. They both vow to make your holidays happier, your gingerbread cookie binge less guilt-inducing and your mistletoe more fragrant.

Venice Christmas Boat Parade

Thirty minutes before the Venice Christmas Boat Parade began, John Osmulski’s boat fell apart. He had decorated his boat as a pirate ship, and the mast snapped. The worst part? He was the first boat in the parade.

The Venice Christmas Boat Parade began in 1989, the brainchild of Jim Hussmann. Each year approximately 45 boats, twined with lights, rev their engines at the Albee Road bridge and float down the Intracoastal Waterway to raise money for boating activities for Venice area youth.

The Christmas Boat Parade has also given thousands of dollars in scholarships to high school students and donated money to the St. Francis Animal Shelter and All Faith’s Food Bank. Money comes from community donations, not application fees. Boaters are not awarded money to participate.

“If it wasn’t for the generosity of the boaters, there wouldn’t be a show,” said John Osmulski, who was the parade president for six years.

In the boat parade’s 23-year history, they’ve never once had to postpone due to inclement weather. The boats always float down the intracoastal on the first Saturday in December. Each year boaters—even the 10 or 12 who participate in every parade—decorate their boats differently and compete for prizes. Judges award prizes for best decorations.

“I don’t think anybody does it for the trophy,” said Peter Marriot, president of the Venice Christmas Boat Parade. “When you hear thousands of people (spectators) enjoying your boat, that’s your reward.”

A parade doesn’t go for 23 years without a hitch. One year, a Sertoma boat broke down and the police towed it through so it could be judged; another boat went through the parade unlit because the generator broke.

“It has nothing to do with the boat underneath,” said Peter. “It’s how it’s decorated.”

Venice Holiday Parade

Every Christmas season, Venice Holiday Parade participants march into people’s hearts, warming them against the chill of the 55-degree Florida winter. Families stake their claims on parade spots with lawn chairs days before Santa kicks-off the holiday season, and rarely is a lawn chair lost. Grandparents smile as they watch their grandchildren’s faces sparkle like the lights strung up in the tree branches hanging over the parade route.

There’s a rule for parade participants: no fake Santas. The one and only jolly St. Nick rides at the end of the parade each year—sometimes on a sleigh made out of a dumpster, sometimes in a Corvette pulled by other Corvettes decorated like reindeer, and sometimes even with pink underwear under his red suit.

But there’s only one Santa. Don’t steal his thunder. Or his bowl full of jelly.

The 36-year history of the Venice Holiday Parade has been eventful. There was the year a float pulled by a tow truck broke down in the middle of the parade and the musicians performing on it decided to push it through the route; and there was the year Tervis Tumbler made a Christmas tree out of plastic glassware.

And then there was the year of the elephants.

When the circus was still a Venice icon, elephants would participate in the holiday parade, lit by colored lights borrowed from the Venice High School theater department.

All in the Family

Earl Midlam and his family began the parade 36 years ago. His mother used to bake cookies for all the parade watchers.

“We were the parade,” Earl joked.

Since then, the parade has grown to include 3,000 parade participants from 125 local organizations. The parade costs nothing to walk in or watch.

“They love giving this gift to the community,” said Sue Hebert of parade participants. Sue has co-chaired the parade with her husband Bob for 11 years.

Each year, more than 50,000 spectators line the streets on Venice Island. The parade route begins at Park Boulevard and travels the north and south sides of Venice Avenue before turning onto Nokomis Avenue and ending at the Venice Library. Pre-parade entertainment begins at 5 p.m. and the parade starts at 7 p.m. on Saturday, November 26.

“You can put chairs out on Wednesday and they’ll still be there on Saturday,” Bob said.

Earl thinks that says a lot about the Venice community. He said each year the parade committee honors a community member by making them Grand Marshall of the parade.

“It’s a great family evening,” said Sue.

Two long-standing Venice holiday traditions—the Venice Christmas Boat Parade and the Venice Holiday Parade—embrace the holiday cheer without creating competitive unease. They provide families with a way to celebrate together.

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