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A Tree For Boston: How The Halifax Explosion Led To An Annual Christmas Tradition

In 1917, Boston provided immediate aid after the Halifax explosion. Nova Scotia won’t forget.

Every Christmas, a piece of Nova Scotia stands proudly in Boston’s centre square.

Nova Scotians send a Christmas tree to the city every year, as thanks for the support of Bostonians following the 1917 Halifax Explosion. Boston was one of the first jurisdictions to send aid, with the governor dispatching a train full of supplies and medical personnel within hours.

As a thank you, Nova Scotia sent the city a Christmas tree. And every year since 1971, they’ve continued to do so.

Even amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the tree made its annual journey this year from the Nova Scotia wilderness to Boston Common. This year’s tree carries the special weight of honouring health-care workers, both during the explosion’s aftermath and the pandemic.

Nova Scotians say they will never forget the kindness of the people of Boston.

Here’s the heartfelt history behind this holiday tradition.

The Halifax Explosion of 1917

On Dec. 6, 1917, two ships collided in the Halifax harbour, creating the largest man-made explosion in history at the time. Nearly 2,000 people died in the Halifax Explosion and hundreds more were severely injured. Parts of the city were completely levelled.

When word reached Boston, just 645 kilometres across the Atlantic Ocean, the governor immediately dispatched a train full of supplies and medical personnel without even waiting for Halifax’s answer to his offer of assistance.

In a letter to the Halifax mayor, Massachusetts Governor Samuel McCall said Boston had the “strongest affection” for the people there.

“We are anxious to do everything possible for their assistance at this time,” he wrote.

Bostonians raised millions of dollars to support Halifax, sending more supplies and more health-care workers following the initial train. Many stayed in Halifax for months and even years following the disaster to continue providing relief.

As a gesture of thanks for all of the support, Nova Scotia sent its first Christmas tree to Boston in 1917.

In 1971, Nova Scotia resident Joseph Slauenwhite once again donated a large Christmas tree to Boston to mark the occasion and express thanks. That kicked off the new annual tradition, which has seen trees donated every year since then. Slauenwhite donated the first two trees in 1971 and 1972, and after that, the trees were donated from across the province.

In 2017, Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, Halifax Mayor Michael Savage, and Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil unveiled a plaque near where the tree stands to mark the 100th anniversary of the explosion.

Selecting the tree for Boston

The province’s official Christmas Tree Specialist Ross H. Penz — and yes, that’s a real title — has the responsibility for selecting the tree each year from the province’s lands. According to the Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources, it must be a healthy, attractive and easily accessed balsam fir, white spruce or red spruce, 12 to 16 metres tall.

The selected tree often comes from private land, but Nova Scotians who own the selected tree are usually happy to donate it.

This year’s tree was donated by Heather and Tony Sampson of Richmond County, N.S.

Heather is a health-care worker in a long-term care facility in St. Peters, N.S. that’s been hit by the pandemic.

“Everybody has been working so hard, doing double the work,” she said. “It’s been a hard year. It’s been a hard year for everybody.”

The tree’s journey

The tree is cut down in mid-November, and then begins its 1,200-kilometre journey to Boston. First step: the official tree-cutting ceremony.

After that, it’s loaded onto a truck bound for the Port of Halifax, followed by a cargo ship to Boston Harbour, and then another truck to its final destination.

This year’s tree arrived at Boston Common on Nov. 20, where it will stand throughout the holiday season.

While the tree is usually lit as part of a large ceremony involving representatives from Nova Scotia and the tree’s donors, because of the COVID-19 pandemic it will be a virtual affair this year.

The virtual lighting of the tree will be broadcast on Boston’s local TV station WCVB-TV, as well as the tree’s various social media channels, on Thursday Dec. 3 at 8 p.m. AST / 7 p.m. EST if you want to tune in for some cross-border Christmas cheer.

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