The first Key West Christmas Truck Parade began with an insult. Someone pulled up at the bocce courts with a wreath hanging over their truck’s radiator, and someone else said,

“That sucks. You call that Christmas Spirit? I can decorate my truck way better than that.”

Further words were exchanged (as tends to happen at the bocce courts).  

One thing led to another, and soon there was a line of six or 12 trucks driving down Duval Street, some decorated with lit tiki torches, some throwing firecrackers at tourists, all spreading holiday cheer.

This was in 1993, and I wasn’t there. The origin details came from Harry Harrison, a salesman who once sold Spam, among other things, and who was captain of the Ramada Rats bocce team, as well as something of a ringleader for various forms of mischief. (These facts were confirmed, though, by my wife, a reliable reporter type, who was driving her Mazda Miata as the chase car behind the whole thing.)

I don’t remember a lot of details from the second year, except for helping a future circuit court judge decorate his Jeep Cherokee, then riding around town, yelling “Merry Christmas” at stupefied bystanders, and not being able to stop laughing.

The third year is the most vivid to me, probably because I had a camera and took some notes. There was Frank the Plumber, who sat in the bed of his truck atop a stack of wrapped Christmas presents, on an actual porcelain throne, with a plunger as a scepter and a sign that said “The Little Plumber Boy,” with a generator running somewhere underneath it all to power the excess of lights. There was Wilma Krabill, who was in her 70s, dressed as Santa, flanked by palm trees and plastic flamingos, in the back of Bonnie and Mitzi’s celeste green 1950s Chevy pickup. There was this guy named Craig, who everyone just called The Drunkest Man in America, loosely strapped to the hood of a shiny black GMC pickup truck with rope. Someone wrapped him in garland, then someone stuck a red nose on him, and he was thereafter referred to as The Drunkest Reindeer In America.

And there were about a dozen other trucks, as well as our aged Volvo station wagon, which they were kind enough to let tag along.

None of this was, of course, sanctioned by the city, or remotely legal. There was a “parade permit,” though it was taxidermied, caught on a fly, according to my notes, by a guy named Nick, apparently some kind of world record, borrowed from the walls of a dentist’s office and hanging by a pole over the hood of Harry’s Crown Victoria. 

Caution wasn’t completely thrown to the wind, however, because Steve and Kathy, on their Harleys with antlers duct taped to their helmets, raced ahead to block traffic at the busier intersections, so the parade could roll through. 

I’m not sure how long we drove around town that year, maybe 45 minutes, everybody honking “Jingle Bells” in near-unison, but it was one of the more fun evenings of my life. A last bit of low-grade anarchy as the 1970s, drug-smuggling era slowly transitioned into the 2000s mass tourism/wealthy snowbird era. I just remember Wilma getting out of the back of Bonnie and Mitzi’s pickup, amused to no end, going on in her Kentucky accent about how somebody had mooned her. And I remember the after-party at the Compass Rose getting interrupted when the fire truck arrived, because the generator in the Little Plumber Boy’s truck had lit the wrapped packages on fire. No damage was really done, though. The fire crew put it out quickly, and promised that when they got back to the station they’d just tell everyone it was a false alarm.

The Truck Parade might have happened again after that. Or that might have been the last one. I think it was hard to marshal that level of anarchy, even low-level anarchy, on a regular basis. Looking through the photos now I realize how many of these people have since passed away, Wilma Krabill and Harry Harrington among them.

I do not think it is a coincidence that the truck parade faded out at about the same time the official Key West Holiday Parade began to gain traction.

For those who don’t know, the existence of Key West’s annual Holiday Parade is rooted in bigotry and intolerance, but its story is also one of the world’s more beautiful correctives. Back in the day there was a Christmas parade organized by the Lower Keys Ministerial Association. In the mid-1990s, when the largely gay Metropolitan Community Church and the Key West Business Guild asked to participate, they were rejected.

Reverend Gary Redwine of the Big Coppitt First Baptist Church on Big Coppitt Key, told the New York Times in 1995, “It’s not a personal thing at all… It’s not that we hate homosexuals or anything. We just don’t agree with homosexuality, and we can’t condone the homosexual lifestyle.” He added that having gay people participate in the parade would not be “in accordance with the image of biblical morality and family that we wish to project.”

This didn’t fly with locals or local politicians of any stripe, so in 1996 the city of Key West just decided to have its own parade, inviting everyone in the community to participate, and no one has heard much from the Lower Keys Ministerial Association since. I have a strong memory of Josephine Parker, the city clerk, riding on the back of a convertible in a giant pair of angel wings.

The parade has become one of Key West’s most bedrock traditions. 

I can’t tell you how heartening it is every year to see the mixed bag of Key West’s everything participate – kids in the gymnastic club, churches, members of the local synagogue, drag queens, police, firefighters, the Aqueduct Authority, contractors, leather boys, animals from the jail zoo, the high school marching band, jugglers, pets up for adoption, the hockey club, seemingly everyone in South Florida who owns a Miata… It is hard not to bask in the glory of a small town doing something so right. I don’t think I’ve ever missed one if I’ve been in town.

This is not to say that my wife and I have gone completely legit. For 15 or so years we’ve been hosting something called the Christmas Lights Bike Ride, in which a small group of friends gets together at our house. We drink the World’s Largest White Russian, then ride around town, looking at the lights, blasting Christmas carols, slapping hands with the folks on the Conch Train as we pass. It’s not so much a parade as a procession.

It started out with eight or 10 of us doing this, but it has grown, most years, to 50 or 60 people, and we’re trying to hold it there, so it doesn’t become some unwieldy thing that collapses under its own weight. But there are always enough people who can’t make it every year that we have some room for a few new folks.

In the earlier years of this, the end parties were a little more raucous, with occasional bouts of skinny-dipping and people trying out K-9 shock collars on one another. But we’ve all matured. 

We’ve been coming across other groups doing this in recent years, and we try to slap hands with them as well. And there’s even an official Christmas Bike Ride organized by the city.

The one thing our group tries to do is ride down Duval Street, yelling holiday greetings at tourists over a loudspeaker, but doing it in a way that they don’t expect and confuses them for a moment, so they maybe stand there for a second, staring at us, trying to figure out what’s going before giving us a wave and a smile.

It’s not Harry Harrington-level mischief, but it’s still pretty good.

Mark Hedden is a photographer, writer, and semi-professional birdwatcher. He has lived in Key West for more than 25 years and may no longer be employable in the real world. He is also executive director of the Florida Keys Audubon Society.