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

  • avo2hap

    Fabulous story and a great testament to the kindness of people in tragic situations.

  • Lisa L.

    I love knowing information like this, it gives the tradition of the Boston Tree lighting a backbone. Thanks for sharing your research 🙂

  • Dawn

    I was just talking to some one in Boston tonight that had no idea that the tree came from us here in N.S. every yr or even why , so I was looking for the story about it when I came on this and was very pleased to read what you wrote. we take great pride in growing the tree for you every yr. and how better to bring smiles to every ones faces then a huge tree all lit up, we are for ever thankful for what your ancestors have done, it was a very sad day in history when those ships destroyed our city, but then you all shone down on us and brought hope back to those that survived. we hope that they do not put a stop to it. thank you .

  • Jen

    I am a native of Arizona and was just researching Boston at Christmas time when I came across this article. The spirit of this article had such a poignancy to it, that I found myself tearing up at the terrible devestation to Halifax and its citizens, the selflessness of the Bostonians, and the gratitude of the people of Nova Scotia. This tradition should never be broken. I think God will mend the “carbon print” made by the delivery of the tree and bless those involved. Thanks for sharing. I appreciate being able to learn about such events.

  • Jim Dwyer

    Well done, Patrick. I’ve been aware of the tradition and reason behind it, but the magnitude of the explosion itself caught me off guard. One fifth the impact as the Hiroshima bomb. Thanks for enlightening us all. We need more of this on the Internet.

  • nick carbone

    Kudos to Patrick Browne. One more added to the list who know the true meaning of the tree. I have known about the Halifax explosion and read a couple of books about it. I have been to Halifax. Such a beautiful city and common. Amazing story…..and true. What a great movie it could make.

  • John Cavan

    The story of the Halifax explosion is generally known to Canadians by and large, but this aspect of the story is probably not. Your telling of it is amongst the best I’ve read, well done. Traditions such as these represent the purest symbols of friendship our two nations could ever hope to have and so may they always continue.

    • Patrick Browne

      Thank you, John. Though I researched this subject some time ago, I am still awed by the magnitude of the disaster and the story of friendship and support between the two cities. I hope the tradition continues as well!

  • Paul Ingram

    Nice article, I live in Halifax, NS and pretty much everyone knows the history of the Halifax explosion. Growing up in Cape Breton, NS we were taught about the event in school and part of our history class was to read one of the books written on the subject.

    I think the significance of the Boston Christmas Tree is pretty much public knowledge, and you’re correct, it’s taken very seriously and something Nova Scotian’s feel pretty proud of for the most part, I know I do. I think the long relationship the Maritimes has had with the New England states is a wonderful thing in a world that has so much bad news at times. Nova Scotia was there on September 11th when the twin towers were struck. I happened to be working on a security system at one of the 911 call centers at the time everything was taking place in New York. We knew something big was going on when we were ask to pack up and leave and they sprang into action as dozens of planes landed at the Halifax Airport. Halifax doesn’t have a large airport, but they crammed the planes in their until it was more recognizable as a Wal-Mart parking lot. I was very touched to see my neighbours showing up at our local Rec Center offering their homes, blankets anything they could. By the time I got there I was told they simply didn’t need anything else.

    I hope the friendship between our 2 country’s continues for generations to come. I write this from my motel room as my wife and I are here doing our Christmas shopping in Bangor, Maine. We love coming here, the people are very friendly and we feel very welcomed.

  • Jeff Berlin

    We’re off to see the tree tonight! Was looking for more information about the history behind the tradition and found this article, thanks for posting this. Was talking to our 25 year old nanny who had no idea the tree was a gift from Nova Scotia. It’s important the story be passed on, but now I see there’s a great example we as a nation can learn from the successful long term recovery effort years after the disaster.

    • Patrick Browne

      Thanks. Very glad you enjoyed it, Jeff. I haven’t been into Boston to see it yet this year, but I admired it last year with a new appreciation. Glad that this story helped pass the history along.

  • Scott Waugh

    Thanks for this I am a Canadian and know the story of Halifax very well .I truly feel the people of Boston should fell pride for the help thay gave at a very hard time for Halifax. We take this on HONOR very much to heart every year .I would like the people of Boston to know this and thank you. This must go on every year . THANK YOU BOSTON

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