Culture | History | Travel

Halifax Christmas Tree

If you live in Boston or Halifax you likely know Boston’s Christmas tree is an annual gift from Halifax. Since 1971 Halifax has sent a tree to Boston. Fifty years of tree giving. This isn’t inconsequential. The cost of transporting a tree 700 miles to Boston surely add up. So why make the commitment at all? The story behind that tradition is lesser known.

In 1917, at the height of World War One, a French ship named the SS Mont Blanc was loaded with munitions and set out from Halifax Harbor for Europe. The ship would never leave Halifax. She collided with another ship in the narrows and caught on fire. When the fire reached the munitions there was a massive explosion that wiped out part of Halifax, killing over 2000 people and injuring another 9000. At the time it was the largest manmade explosion in history. And it occurred in a heavily populated area.

When Boston’s Mayor Curley heard about the tragedy, he immediately sent a group of doctors and nurses to aid Halifax with medical supplies. Boston’s response was actually significantly faster that Ottawa’s. The team of doctors and nurses spent Christmas 1917 in Halifax, decorating Christmas trees in the hospitals. The bond between Halifax and Boston was forever fused.

The connection between the two cities goes beyond Christmas trees: Halifax broadcasts Boston’s WCVB and also has a large following of Red Sox and Patriots fans as the games are broadcast there. And then there’s family connections. Since the Port of Halifax was the Ellis Island of Canada, many New Englanders are descendants of immigrants who came through Nova Scotia. The bond is indeed deep.

In 1971, within the lifetimes of many of the people who lived through that tragedy, Halifax began donating a tree every year. I bet there were several survivors of the explosion who shed a few tears the day that first tree was shipped to Boston. Boston remembered as well, and the tree serves as a reminder of the common bond between the two cities. Today is the lighting of the Christmas tree in Boston, and we turn our eyes north to our friends in Halifax.

The pandemic has closed borders, blocking access to people and places we took for granted. With the border closed even the Christmas tree took a unique route to Boston in 2020: It was shipped from Halifax to Portland, Maine and then driven down the rest of the way. Many of us look forward to having the borders open again so that we may once again see our friends and kin up north.

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