The official Boston Christmas Tree arrives each year from Nova Scotia and stands in Boston Common

Walking through Boston at night can be pleasant at any time of the year, but is particularly special during the Christmas season. The town is lit up from the USS Constitution at the Charlestown Navy Yard to the arbor in Christopher Columbus Park, to the Boston Blink! Light show at Faneuil Hall Marketplace. But there is one Christmas attraction that has over a century of history behind it, and stands as a symbol of fellowship between Boston and another historic town on the Atlantic.

The Great War, 1914-1918

The Great War, now known as World War I, began on June 28, 1914, and Canada - still a part of the British Empire at the time, was automatically committed to the fight from its beginning. The United States had entered the war in 1917, committing troops and supplies each week to the fight against Germany and its allies. The town of Halifax on Canada’s eastern coast in the province of Nova Scotia became a critical port along the shipping route between North America and Europe, and on the morning of December 6, 1917, the French Cargo Ship Mont-Blanc was inbound from New York, slowly cruising the harbor next to the city. Loaded with explosives, the ship was to rendezvous with a convoy of other cargo and battleships before steaming to France. At the same time, another cargo ship, the Norwegian SS Imo is making its way to the open Atlantic loaded with grain for the citizens of Belgium, left starving by the War.

As the Imo navigates through the busy port of Halifax, a steamship cuts across its path in the channel, forcing the Imo into oncoming traffic - right into the path of the explosive-laden Mont-Blanc which is pinned between two passenger ferries on the left, and shallow water on the right. Both captains should have reversed their engines, but that’s not what happened - at least not until it was too late. The two ships collided at very low speed - perhaps only 1 knot, but it was enough to damage fuel barrels on the deck of the Mont Blanc, releasing vapors that ignite from sparks generated by the collision. Fire quickly ensued and engulfed the Mont-Blanc.

Under normal circumstances, the explosive material would have been clearly labeled on the Mont-Blanc, but that would have drawn an attack from German submarines, so it went unmarked. Townspeople from Halifax gathered at the shoreline to watch the flaming vessel, unaware that they were well within the kill zone of the impending blast.

The Halifax Explosion

Halifax Explosion

Twenty minutes after the collision, the Mont-Blanc exploded, causing a blast wave that ripped through the town of Halifax, killing 2,000 souls and injuring 9,000 more. It was the largest human-generated explosion at the time and remains the largest non-nuclear explosion to this day. For quick reference, the MOAB is the largest non-nuclear bomb in the US arsenal, used in 2017 in Afghanistan to great media coverage. It would take 250 MOAB bombs to generate the energy of the Halifax Explosion.

The carnage was severe. Every building within a 1.6-mile radius was destroyed or damaged. Over 1,600 citizens were killed instantly, including several hundred that had gathered at the pier to watch the flaming Mont-Blanc. Others, watching from their homes suffered the same fate. Many more were blinded from the shattered glass as they stood behind windows to watch the fire.

Rescue Efforts & Aftermath

Buildings damaged by Halifax Explosion

Damaged buildings from the December 6, 1917, explosion

Rescue efforts began immediately with surviving citizens digging victims from the rubble,. They were soon joined by fire crews, police, and Canadian military forces from the surrounding area. Merchant and military ships arrived and were converted to floating hospitals to support the overwhelming demand for medical care.

Further out, relief trains from across eastern Canada and the northeast US were loaded with medical personnel and supplies inbound for Halifax. They carried out the wounded and the newly homeless. In Boston, the first train was loaded and dispatched by 10:00 pm on December 6th. However, a blizzard in eastern Canada the day after the explosion delayed its arrival by one day. It arrived in Halifax on the morning of December 8th. Medical personnel were able to relieve some of the weary first responders and hospital staff, who had been working around the clock for the past two days, while food, water, warm clothing and blankets, and other critical supplies were distributed to the townspeople.

The First Boston Christmas Tree Gift

Needless to say, Christmas in Halifax that year was not Merry. Much of the town was obliterated and there was not much to celebrate. A year later, in 1918, after the town had started to recover, the local government sent a large Christmas tree to the City of Boston in remembrance of the assistance given during the disaster. Then, in 1971, another Christmas tree arrived, this time sent by the Lunenburg County Christmas Tree Producers Association. The gift was again to remember the relief efforts given way back in 1917, but also as a marketing tool to promote the export of Christmas trees into the US market. The giving of the Christmas tree was renewed annually, creating a tradition and cementing the friendship between these two cities.

Today, the government of Nova Scotia has taken over the role of donating the Boston Christmas Tree. But it rarely comes from a tree farm. It almost always comes from wild forests, often from private land where the owners are usually honored to give up one of their best trees to the city.

Of course, Boston is one of America’s most historic cities. History is everywhere, here - even behind something as simple as a Christmas tree.

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