Christmas Tree From Halifax Shows Love Conquers Ill Will

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A century of uncommon good will between the citizens of Boston and Halifax will be commemorated on the Boston Common on Thursday with the annual lighting of the city’s Christmas tree.

Such events were once thought to be unimaginable. One hundred years ago the kindred cities felt more contempt than kindness towards each other. 

During the American Revolution it was commonplace for Americans to harass, torture, even kill those who remained loyal to the Crown. Seeking refuge, many Loyalists moved to Canadian territories. After the war it was the expectation of Americans, including many Bostonians, that the forceful annexation of northern provinces was inevitable. That led to generational grudges and mistrust.

On December 6, 1917, as World War I was staged across the globe, a game of chicken unintentionally detonated an unmarked over-loaded munitions ship in Halifax harbor. The reckless game sparked a massive explosion that produced fallout resembling an atomic bomb’s mushroom cloud and was followed by a leveling sonic blast and tsunami. One of North America’s worst man-made disasters was also the catalyst that prompted Bostonians to harness their humanity rather than harbor ill-will. 

Within 24 hours of the devastating explosion Massachusetts Governor Samuel McCall deployed an emergency relief train with medical supplies, surgeons, nurses, State Guard workers, and reporters to coordinate the humanitarian response.  In The Great Halifax Explosion, New York Times Best Selling author John Bacon detailed the scene encountered by people we now refer to as First Responders: “Even the most dire reports grossly underestimated the devastation.”

The book chronicles the immediate mission of those arriving from Boston “to find the survivors and help them medically, then materially.” As it explains, the aid-team’s leader, a Boston-born banker and philanthropist, Cap Ratshesky, also delivered a message from Governor McCall to the Canadian Government Railways headquarters:  “I need hardly say to you that we have the strongest affection for the people of your city, and that we are anxious to do everything possible for their assistance at this time.” Even before the enormity of the loss was fully assessed Massachusetts agreed to donate the equivalent of $2 Million and to send additional trade personnel and Christmas gifts for children in support of the relief effort.

Medical relief workers, likely including some from the Harvard medical team, arrive in Halifax, Nova Scotia in the aftermath of the explosion in December 1917.
Historical photo reprinted in John U. Bacon’s book ‘The Great Halifax Explosion:  A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism.’ Photo reproduced here with acknowledgment from publisher Harper Collins.

To commemorate the generous spirit and heroic deeds of Bostonians who supported the city of Halifax 100 years ago, Ryan Woods, director of External Affairs for the Boston Parks and Recreation Department, said a newly installed granite plaque will be unveiled on the Boston Common at 11 a.m. Thursday, November 30.

He went on to say that a spirit of good will continues to thrive in children of both cities.  Skype fosters a virtual pen-pal relationship between 4th graders of North America’s oldest public elementary school, Dorchester’s Mather School, and St. Stephen’s Elementary School in Halifax.

Spectacular seasonal festivities are also planned for Thursday’s commemorations. From 5 to 6 p.m. the Skating Club of Boston plans to present a free show, with Olympic gold-medalist Scott Hamilton in attendance, as national and international competitive figure-skaters perform on the Boston Common Frog Pond. After the show Stephen McNeil, the premier of Nova Scotia, members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and a delegation of 300 Haligonians and Santa Claus will be with Boston Mayor Marty Walsh as he oversees the lighting of a  53-foot white spruce Christmas tree donated by the Campbell family of Cape Breton Island. Just before 8 p.m. the tree will be lit in coordination with Christmas lights in the Public Garden. The light show will be followed by a fireworks display.

Premier McNeil said in a press release:  “A century ago, our American neighbors played a critical role in aiding our province during the aftermath of the Halifax Explosion. Nova Scotia will never forget the support the people of Boston and the surrounding area provided. As a thank you, and to mark our on-going friendship, we are very pleased once again to give the gift of a beautiful Nova Scotia Christmas tree and celebrate the season in your city.”


To learn more follow:

“Tree for Boston” on Facebook 

“@Tree for Boston” on Twitter 

On Thursday, November 30, between 1 and 2 p.m., Massachusetts General Hospital will host a lunch time lecture at the Russell Museum called “No Boundaries:  Masssachusetts Nurses’ Response to the Halifax Disaster.” Register via e-mail at[email protected] or call 617-724-2755

Watch WCVB Channel 5 at 7 p.m. for a live broadcast.