© Province of Nova Scotia

By Allie Murray

On December 6, 1917, an explosion in the Halifax harbour shook the city to its core.

Two ships, the Mont-Blanc and the Imo, were travelling through the Halifax Narrows when they collided. The Mont-Blanc was carrying high explosives, causing a fire to engulf the ship, later leading to an explosion.

The explosion sent shock waves through the regions of both Halifax and Dartmouth—killing approximately 2,000 people and injuring 9,000 others.

In a time of need, Halifax officials put out a call for help, asking for doctors to aid them in the recovery. The mayor of Boston at the time, Mayor James Curley, and former Massachusetts Governor Samuel McCall answered the call and sent a group of doctors, nurses, aid workers, and medical supplies on a 1,000km trip from Boston to Halifax.

A letter from Governor McCall dated December 6, 1917, reads, “I am sending Hon. A.C. Ratchesky, of the Massachusetts Public Safety Committee, immediately to your city, with a corps of our best state surgeons and nurses, in the belief that they may be of service to you in this hour of need. I need hardly to 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.”

Upon arrival, the healthcare workers began immediately distributing food, water, and medical supplies. In Nova Scotia schools, to this day, students are taught about the heroic arrival of Boston’s doctors, noting them as true lifesavers.

With many of the officials in Boston still in Halifax just a few short weeks later for Christmas, they decorated the hospitals and put up a Christmas tree to celebrate the holiday, despite the crisis that brought them to the region in the first place.

The following year, in December 1918, Nova Scotia sent a Christmas tree as a way to say thank you. Another tree was sent in 1971 and has been sent every year since. Amid war, a pandemic, international turmoil, and differences that set us apart, Nova Scotia and Boston have continued a 104-year friendship with a holiday gifting tradition.

The tree that is sent every year is chosen from a local Nova Scotian family. By agreeing to donate your tree, the province of Nova Scotia also sends the donor family to Boston for the tree lighting, allowing the family to experience the heart-warming event firsthand.

In 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Nova Scotia dedicated the annual tree donation to the frontline workers who came to their aid in 1917 and the frontline workers who worked tirelessly in the fight against COVID-19.

“We thank Boston for their kindness during our time of need by sending a big, beautiful Nova Scotia Christmas tree,” Lands and Forestry Minister Derek Mombourquette said in a 2020 press release. “This important tradition symbolizes gratitude, friendship and remembrance. It’s also our way of honouring those who have worked so hard to keep us healthy and safe during the pandemic.”

This year, a 48-foot white spruce Christmas tree was donated by landowner L’Arche Cape Breton, a non-profit organization that creates safe, supportive homes and meaningful work for people with disabilities.

“In response to the explosion in 1917, Boston extended a hand of friendship to Halifax, which was accepted with open arms and returned with an endless thanksgiving through the Tree for Boston,” explained Executive Director and Community Leader at L’Arche Cape Breton Mukthar Limpao.

At the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Nova Scotia, visitors can tour photos, artifacts, and stories from the explosion. Travellers can also walk the Halifax harbour and learn about the vast history that sailed through those waters.

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