The Monumental Significance of Boston’s Christmas Tree

The Christmas Tree on Boston Common (Massachusetts State House in background)

The City of Boston’s official Christmas Tree on the Common was ceremoniously lit on December 2 this year. I was not there. It seemed to me, up until recently, that this was just another Christmas lighting. But having recently learned the significance of Boston’s Christmas tree, I now understand it is not just “any” tree and will make a point of attending the event in the future.

I knew the tree is an annual gift from the Province of Nova Scotia. And I recall seeing a local news spot highlighting the fact that Nova Scotians take this very seriously and a considerable amount of time, competition, and consideration is involved in selecting the specimen each year. But only recently was my curiosity really piqued when I read an article about the tree lighting in the Boston Globe which, in addition to trumpeting the fact that the Radio City Rockettes and R&B singer Patti Austin would be there, casually mentioned that the tree was given annually by Nova Scotia, “as a thanks for [Boston’s] response to a disastrous explosion of a munitions ship in Halifax Harbor in 1917.”

I consider myself the sort of person who usually pays attention to these kinds of details, but that was news to me. And although it may be common knowledge to most Nova Scotians, I’m guessing there are more than a few Americans who have never heard of the Halifax Explosion of 1917.

This is supposed to be the season of light and hope, so I’m not going to go into much detail about the tragedy. I’d much rather focus on the more inspiring side of the story. But, reading up on the incident, I have to say I was completely stunned by the magnitude of the disaster and I think a few facts are necessary to put this in perspective. After all, most brief references to the event seem to imply that it was simply “maritime disaster”–vaguely referring to an explosion on a ship. (And I’m not faulting Boston papers for that…they’re trying to advertise a festive event and providing the historical background wouldn’t really be appropriate). But it was so much more than just the destruction of one ship.

During World War I, Halifax was a major shipping point for supplies and munitions to Europe. On the morning of December 6, 1917 a French cargo vessel, the Mont Blanc, being laden with 2,700 tons of explosives, was steaming up Halifax harbor to anchor in Bedford Basin. She had loaded her cargo in New York City and was awaiting a convoy in Halifax to escort her across the Atlantic. Meanwhile, a Norwegian vessel, the Imo, was leaving Halifax with a cargo of relief supplies bound for Belgium.

The Halifax Exhibition Building after the disaster

Due to the busy traffic of the harbor and some confusion, the two vessels ended up on a collision course. When they struck, a fire was sparked on the Mont Blanc. The crew immediately abandoned ship, leaving the burning vessel to drift towards the city of Halifax. Twenty minutes later, the ship and its huge cargo of TNT exploded next to a pier on the northern end of the city. It was the largest man-made explosion up to that point in history, about one-fifth the strength of the Hiroshima bomb. Two thousand people were killed and nine thousand injured. Nearly one square-mile of Halifax was obliterated. Pieces of the Mont Blanc were found miles away and the shock of the explosion was felt more than 200 miles away.

The size of this disaster is difficult for me to get my brain around. But enough of that. On to the more hopeful aspects of the tale…

Just hours after the disaster, Bostonians took immediate action. Before the day’s end, trains loaded with relief supplies, food, medicine, nurses and doctors were on their way to Halifax. No small feat considering the telegraph lines were out and communication between Boston and Halifax must have been difficult. The people of Massachusetts would eventually donate $750,000 to the relief of Halifax.

The support from Massachusetts was not fleeting. The Commonwealth made a long-term commitment in the form of the Massachusetts-Halifax Relief Committee and the Massachusetts-Halifax Health Commission. Recognizing that it would take years to rehabilitate the wounded and rebuild the city, the commission (consisting of officials from both Massachusetts and Nova Scotia) developed a plan for a long-term overhaul of the public health system of Halifax. This plan was approved by the Canadian government in 1919 and implemented over the following five years. Hospitals were established with specialized clinics to treat the physical and psychological needs of the citizens of Halifax. Public health education and disease prevention was a priority.

The Massachusetts-Halifax commission hoped that, in the wake of tragedy, the city of Halifax might emerge as the shining example of modern public health on the American continent. Indeed, a 1920 study of the Halifax disaster pronounced, “Today Halifax has the finest public health program and most complete public health organization in the Dominion.”

In 1918, a year after the disaster, Halifax sent a Christmas tree to the city of Boston…a simple but poignant expression of gratitude to the city that first came to their aid. The tradition did not stick initially. It wasn’t until 1971 that it was revived. But every year since then, Nova Scotia has supplied Boston’s official Christmas tree.

Some have criticized the tradition. In particular, a recent article on Boston’s tree quotes a Tufts University professor who suggests that it would be better to simply leave the trees where they are rather than contribute carbon emissions to the atmosphere by trucking them down here simply to perpetuate a tradition. I am a proponent of the green movement but I think this is taking it a little too far. I’m assuming this professor does not know the full history…but if he does…well, I just don’t get how you could brush off such a thing.

Fortunately, this is one tradition that I think will continue for a long, long time. And now, with a better understanding of the history behind the tradition, I will look at Boston’s Christmas tree very differently.

About Patrick Browne

I am a historian of the Civil War Era, author, and PhD candidate View all posts by Patrick Browne

18 responses to “The Monumental Significance of Boston’s Christmas Tree

  • Patrick Browne

    Reblogged this on Historical Digression and commented:

    In recognition of last night’s (December 5, 2013) lighting of Boston’s Christmas tree, I thought it would be appropriate to re-blog this article I wrote years ago. I think the astounding history behind the tradition is becoming better known here in the States in recent years. I’ve noticed that Boston publications have written in greater detail about the Halifax disaster this year. Here’s to the spirit of kindness, giving and the Halifax-Boston Christmas tree!

  • Make Your Own Christmas Tree 5: The Stuffed Tree | DAILY DOSE OF ART

    […] Part of the city was leveled, killing and injuring thousands.” Info source Read more about “The Monumental Significance of Boston’s Christmas Tree” by Patrick Browne Read more about the Boston-Halifax Relations on […]

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