The Halifax explosion and the Boston Christmas tree

Many early edits of “Nana” had the story of the Halifax explosion in the first chapter. I finally dropped it because it departed too much from the narrative, but I have included it here, because it’s an inspiring story, and Nana and her friends felt the force of the blast –250 miles away.

Besides being the center of a recent controversy, the beautiful Christmas tree on Boston Common has a very interesting history. You may know that the tree used to be displayed at Prudential Center before being moved to Boston Common a few years back. You may know it contains nearly 15,000 lights. You may also know that the tree comes from Canada. What you may not know is that the tree is a thank you gift from the city of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

During World War One, ships carrying troops, ammunition, and relief supplies regularly gathered in Halifax Harbor to sail the Atlantic together for protection against German U-boats.

Early in the morning of December 6, 1917, the French munitions ship Mont-Blanc, which carried four hundred thousand pounds of TNT and other explosive compounds, was preparing to moor to await a convoy, when the Belgian ship Imo entered the wrong channel. To avoid a collision, the Mont-Blanc turned toward Halifax, but the Imo struck the ship, sending showers of deadly sparks everywhere. The crew of the Mont-Blanc abandoned the burning ship, leaving it on a dead course for Halifax.

The Mont-Blanc exploded, causing the biggest man-made explosion until Hiroshima. Two thousand people were killed; another 9000 injured, and 200 were blinded.

The explosion that destroyed all the northern part of Halifax was so massive that it shattered windows some 60 miles away. My grandmother, a 15-year-old student at the time, recalled that morning and said that her schoolhouse windows shook furiously and the floor rumbled-and she was 250 miles away from the blast. (Interestingly, Nana did not believe the official version of the events; she told me she always believed one of the ships had been bombed by the Germans.)

In any case, imagine it – an explosion nearly as large as an atomic bomb, killing or injuring more people than September 11 or Pearl Harbor. Imagine the chaos, the panic, and the suffering, and the need for medical assistance and relief on an inconceivable, citywide level.

Now recall that this disaster occurred in 1917 – decades before medical helicopters, fleets of ambulances, life support units, trauma teams, modern medical science or citywide crisis management.

The surviving Halifax hospitals couldn’t possibly treat all the injured, and to make the situation even more dire, a blizzard struck the next day.

Relief came from around the world, but the people of Halifax were particularly touched by the generosity of the city of Boston, which was the first to send people and relief supplies. With a lot of help and indomitable spirit, Halifax and its people recovered and healed.

Starting then and continuing to this day, the city of Halifax sends Boston a beautiful Christmas tree every year as their way to say thank you for everything the people of Boston did to assist them during unimaginable tragedy.

Despite all the controversy about “Christmas trees” versus “holiday trees,” (It’s a CHRISTMAS tree, by the way) it’s important to remember that the center of attention is a not just a tree but a yearly reminder of tremendous generosity, giving, and selflessness from the people of this state to their northern neighbors during their darkest hour all those years ago.

Whatever that tree on the Boston Common is called, I see it as a reminder that the various holidays this month we celebrate kindness, generosity, and love. Back in 1917, the people of Boston demonstrated this spirit. We should honor them – and all those who died in Halifax – by doing the same.