Every year, there are all sorts of Christmas trees across the city of Boston: large ones, small ones, ones glimpsed through windows of homes, store window creations, ones for sale in lots around town, one with all sorts of lights at Faneuil Hall Marketplace that’s said to be the largest holiday tree in New England.
There is one particular tree, though, that makes a rather long journey to get to Boston. Every year, stories of history, kindness, generosity, and connection come along with this tree as it carries on holiday traditions to the place where it is set up, in the midst of downtown on Boston Common.
This is the city of Boston’s official Christmas tree. It is a gift to the people of Boston from the people of Nova Scotia in Atlantic Canada. As the tree makes its 750 mile/1200km trip by road and by ferry. it rests on a truck with signage proudly identifying it as the Tree for Boston, and with a Nova Scotia flag on its side.
A bit more than one hundred years ago, there was a huge explosion in the harbor at Halifax, Nova Scotia as two ships, one with a cargo of high explosives, collided one wintery December morning, devastating the city and leaving many who did survive the blast injured and with no shelter from the winter’s cold. It is an event school children in Nova Scotia still learn about to this day.
When word of the explosion and the resulting situation in Halifax arrived in Boston by telegraph, people immediately began to see what they could do to help. Within a day, a train with food and other supplies headed north. Also on the train were medical personnel and others with skills to help. Though delayed along the way by a blizzard, the Boston train arrived two days after the explosion, when, among other things, the medical folk were able to relieve local doctors and nurses, most of whom had been working without sleep since the explosion.
That year, the people of Nova Scotia sent a Christmas tree to Boston in thanksgiving for their help. In 1971, it was decided to continue that tradition, which has been going on every year since.
Among other things that means that the provincial government of Nova Scotia has a Christmas Tree Extension Specialist. Each year this person keeps an eye out for likely trees, and when one is chosen, finds out if the owner will agree to have it cut down. That is sometimes quite a decision, as the Tree for Boston must be 40 to 50 feet tall and that means it might be more than 50 years old. It also means such trees are found wild in forests, not in tree farms. In addition, the tree must be red spruce, white spruce, or balsam fir, of good density and symmetrical appearance, and, another important factor: easy to access.
Once the tree is chosen there’s a bit of ceremony about its cutting down, often with Santa Claus and other dignitaries present. Then it sets off on the road, first to be an honored guest at a parade in Halifax and then on its way south toward Boston. This year the tree is a white spruce. A small white spruce was planted near the site where it was cut down to keep the forest growing.
Once the tree arrives in Boston, as its branches settle in from the journey lights are strung (which can take days; it’s a tall tree), and then: time for the official tree lighting celebration. This always takes place on a Thursday evening, in late November or early December.
Musicians and other dignitaries from Nova Scotia and from Boston host the celebration as thousands of New Englanders make their way to the Common, and thousands more watch as the event is broadcast on television.
Then the moment comes: the lights on the tree are switched on, fireworks rise up, and a community sing along of holiday songs fills the air.
It is quite a celebration.
After the stage is taken down and the people go their ways, the tree remains. There is a saying that Christmas trees from Nova Scotia are so beautiful because they catch the salt sea air of the province in their branches; another saying holds that it is Nova Scotia starlight that gives such a tree a special sparkle.
Perhaps it is the history of kindness and generosity that gives an added sparkle for Boston’s tree. However it comes about, Boston’s official Christmas tree, standing quietly in the midst of the Common, radiates the spirit of the holiday season through all the days leading up to Christmas.
Photographs of the lighting ceremony are from the live broadcast of WCVB-Boston; other photographs by Kerry Dexter.
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