A Century-Old Boston Christmas Tree Tradition Costs Canadians Big Money

Turns out that Boston’s city Christmas tree is a very valuable gift

Tree For Boston
The 45-foot Christmas tree is installed in Boston Common. Nova Scotia

On Thursday, Boston will light up its Christmas tree—an annual gift from the people of Halifax, Nova Scotia, in memory of a long-ago gesture of kindness. But this year, reports Brian MacQuarrie for The Boston Globe, an investigation has revealed that the thank-you is an extremely costly one.

On last year's tree and festivities alone, the Nova Scotian government shelled out more than $180,000, the CBC recently discovered. It’s information that could irk some Nova Scotians, who foot the bill for growing, cutting, transporting and lighting the tree along with costs related to broadcasting the lighting ceremony and sending Nova Scotia officials to Boston for the ceremony.

The gift is all because of an unexpected connection between two cities separated by hundreds of miles and a national border.

That separation seemed much bigger in 1917, when transportation between the two countries was more complicated and slow than it was today. But a disastrous event on December 6, 1917, bound the two cities together forever. That morning, two ships collided in Halifax’s busy harbor. What resulted was the third deadliest explosion of all time—and the birth of the unlikely Christmas tradition.

World War I had made Halifax harbor a critical engine of World War I, though Canada would never see fighting on its own soil. The harbor was the last stop for ships headed to Europe with supplies and soldiers and a critical intake point for wounded soldiers headed back to Canada, writes CBC Learning. But the bustling port was also crammed with ships that held dangerous cargoes. That was the case with the Mont-Blanc, a French ship with millions of pounds of TNT, fuel and other explosive substances on board. When it was hit by the Imo, a Norwegian ship that was on its way to Europe and was traveling faster than the harbor’s speed limit, it exploded.

As Nik DeCost-Klipa of Boston.com notes, the initial collision brought a crowd of curious onlookers out to the harbor despite the signals of those on board to take cover. The result was nothing less than a bloodbath: Windows shattered up to 62 miles away and at least 1,946 people died in the immediate aftermath or in the months that followed the disaster. The city was thrown into chaos, with entire sections reduced to mere rubble. To make matters worse, a blizzard descended on the city the next day, blanketing its makeshift morgues and rescue efforts with snow.

But Halifax had some unlikely allies: the people of Boston. Touched by reports of the decimation in the city, writes DeCost-Klipa, Boston acted as first responders, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars and sending trains filled with doctors and nurses to Halifax. As a gesture of thanks, the people of Halifax sent a Christmas tree to Boston the next year. The tradition was revived in 1971 and has become a beloved annual custom.

After the new investigation, which used Canada’s freedom of information laws to obtain a cost breakdown, will revelations of the major price tag of the thank-you gift dull Canadians’ enthusiasm for the tree tradition? Perhaps—or perhaps it will illustrate the true depths of the historic ties between the two cities. Either way, both cities will likely look at the 45-foot tree with new eyes this year.

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