The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A boat with ‘Let’s go Brandon’ Christmas lights won the holiday parade. Then the prize was revoked.

A WTKR broadcast in Virginia shows the boat Southern Rock, which won first place in the Yorktown Lighted Boat Parade for its “Let’s go Brandon” theme. (WTKR)
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Teri Hodson prayed Friday night — for unity, for goodness, for the Christmas spirit.

The next night, as she and her husband ambled through historic downtown Yorktown, Va., toward the village’s annual Christmas boat parade, she felt “truly blessed” that her prayers had been answered. Merrymakers wore Christmas sweaters in the streets. Hundreds gathered around the beach bonfire, an annual tradition. Boats bedecked with Christmas decorations cruised down the York River. On one, crew members were dressed as angels, in keeping with the boat’s theme of “Peace on Earth.”

“It was magical,” Hodson told The Washington Post in a Wednesday night phone interview.

Then she saw it — Christmas lights on one of the boats spelled out “Let’s go Brandon,” which has emerged in conservative circles as code for “F--- Joe Biden.” To drive home his point, the boat owner added the letters “FJB.”

Hodson, 59, was stunned.

“This was divisive. It was ugly. It was vulgar,” she said.

The 50-foot vessel named Southern Rock, owned by Bill Berger, went on to win the 25th annual Yorktown Lighted Boat Parade’s “Best in Show” award.

Second place: the “Peace on Earth” boat.

Berger’s win set off a four-day firestorm. The parade’s parent organization, the nonprofit Yorktown Foundation, disqualified the boat retroactively and stripped it of its title, citing its “overt political message.” The nonprofit’s board apologized and voted to continue the parade only if organizers put in safeguards to block political entries from future participation.

“We absolutely apologize for this. We had no idea this was going to happen, and we regret it,” Walt Akers, one of the foundation’s board members, told WTKR.

The foundation is an apolitical nonprofit corporation, Akers said, “whose mission is to promote community activities in and around Yorktown.” Promoting a political message jeopardizes the foundation’s nonprofit status, he said.

“While we recognize that political divisiveness is a factor in our daily discourse, we DO NOT want it to negatively impact anyone’s enjoyment of our community events,” his statement adds. “We regret that this incident occurred.”

Berger didn’t respond to an interview request from The Post. But in a Facebook post published Monday, he defended his contest entry and said everyone knows who really won, according to the Daily Press.

“If you choose to interpret ‘bad words’ that’s on you,” Berger wrote in the post. “No curse words ever from my boat.”

Berger told WAVY that “FJB” stood for “falling Joe Biden,” accompanied with a display in which the president was falling down a ladder. He admitted he was shooting for an anti-Biden theme.

“I think our message got across,” Berger said.

Crowds protesting vaccine mandates chanted slogans, including “Let's go Brandon,” during marches on Oct. 28 and Nov. 21 in New York. (Video: The Washington Post)

“Let’s go Brandon” stems from an Oct. 2 NASCAR race at the Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama. During a trackside interview with winning driver Brandon Brown, an NBC reporter mistakenly thought the crowd was chanting “Let’s go Brandon.” The spectators were actually denouncing the president.

“Let’s go Brandon” has since become an unofficial GOP slogan, with the phrase being chanted at election night parties, political rallies and sporting events across the country.

How ‘Let’s go Brandon’ became an unofficial GOP slogan

In Yorktown on Saturday, a group of five judges, including the chair of the York County Board of Supervisors and the local sheriff, awarded Berger’s boat the parade’s top prize, the Daily Press reported. After the foundation started getting complaints, Akers drove to the docks to investigate. Once he figured out what had happened, he asked the committee’s chair to strip Berger of the “Best in Show” prize and give it to the boat that had come in second.

The parade’s organizers told Akers and the foundation they were “perplexed” that the boat had won, according to a statement published by WTKR. On Wednesday, the parade committee said new measures will include guidance on appropriate entries, entry forms with a description of the proposed decorations and a review process of the planned themes.

Berger said he turned in a form three days before the parade that told organizers what he planned to do. Akers confirmed Berger had informed organizers about his boat’s theme by filling out an entry form, but said he wasn’t sure how detailed it was.

Chad Green, chair of the York County supervisors, told the Daily Press he judged Saturday’s parade, the fifth or sixth time he’s done so.

“I showed up, and I was given a sheet of criteria on which to vote for,” which he said included “lights, spirit and the wow factor.”

“I did my job, I walked away, and then suddenly there’s all kinds of controversy,” Green said. “But I feel that my judging was fair and open and honest.”

Green, a Republican, told the Daily Press that he’s “certainly not going to abridge free speech” on a boat owner’s theme. “I might not agree with it, but I’ll fight for your right to say it,” he said.

For Hodson, it’s not a free speech issue; it’s a question of what’s in keeping with the Christmas spirit. This is the time of year people come together, she said, and ever since moving to Yorktown in 2012, the boat parade and accompanying festivities have been part of that for her — the lighting of the Christmas tree, Santa coming down from a firetruck, the 10-to-18-year-olds dressed in Revolutionary War uniforms playing fifes and drums.

All of it gives her “this beautiful feeling,” she told The Post.

The Christmas lights on the boats are part of that. “This parade is symbolic of that light that we all can be. We can bring joy and light to those in our community,” Hodson said. “That’s what those lights reminded me of.”

“Let’s go Brandon” stole some of that away, she said.