A Few Charms (Banner)

A Few Charms (Banner)

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

A tale of two cities... and a Christmas tree

Did you know that each year, at Christmas, the huge tree that glitters on the Boston Commons is a thank-you gift from the people of Nova Scotia?

The 2015 Christmas tree in the Boston Commons

At this time of year, and with the news filled with stories about terrorism, war, refugees, and mass shootings, I thought I would share a story from the city where I was born and raised: Halifax, Nova Scotia, on the East Coast of Canada.
The two-tone Christmas tree on my old-fashioned Christmas bracelet

In the midst of the First World War, on the morning of December 6, 1917, in the Halifax Harbour, the SS Mont Blanc, a French cargo ship laden with high explosives collided with the Imo, a relief vessel bringing supplies for civilians in war-torn Belgium. While citizens of Halifax gathered on the pier and watched the ensuing fire, the Mont Blanc drifted closer to shore until it exploded, creating the largest man-made explosion before the development of nuclear weapons.
After the blast, looking down the hill towards the waterfront
The 7 million pound hull of the Mont Blanc was tossed upward of 1000 ft and rained down in white-hot shards. The fireball was 1.2 miles high and the shaft of the Mont Blanc's anchor landed more than two miles away. The heat from the explosion caused the evaporation of seawater in a 20 foot radius, momentarily exposing the floor of the harbour. The blast was felt over 250 miles (400 km) away.
The "Before" - the North End of Halifax in the early 1900's

The "After" - a train travelling through the area of destruction
The "After" - looking up the hill at the area of destruction
The 700 mph blast rolled up the hill from the harbour and four hundred acres of residential homes and businesses were flattened - and then slammed by a 60 foot tsunami. Stoves, chimneys and lamps knocked over in the blast set homes on fire, often with families trapped inside. Whole streets were ablaze. The very next day a blizzard dumped 16 inches (41 cm) of heavy snow on the city, putting survivors at risk from exposure as well as impeding fire fighting, rescue efforts, and even the arrival of relief supplies.
A home destroyed by the blast
All told 1600 people were killed instantly - by the blast, the tsunami, or the collapse of buildings. Another 9000 were injured, 400 of whom would die from their injuries. And in a city of less than 60,000 people, suddenly 25,000 were homeless. Having processed hundreds of bodies from the Titanic, only a few years before, the city was equipped for identifying the remains. Residences were turned into hospitals and schools were turned into morgues. Within 48 hours trains brought relief workers and took away casualties and refugees.
Families who watched the fire from the windows in their homes, and children who watched from the windows in their schools, were instantly blinded when the blast wave shattered and splintered all the glass in a 20 mile (32 k) radius. Thirty-seven people lost their sight. Almost 6000 people had eye injuries and medical staff surgically removed more than 250 eyes.
My mother reading Braille
My mother, who was visually-impaired and very active in the blind community of Halifax, knew some of the children who were blinded in the Halifax explosion. Ninety-eight years later I suspect they are no longer here to remind of this event in our collective history. But people do remember. 
After the Halifax explosion the most significant, and best-remembered, American support came from the state of Massachusetts. Within twelve hours of the tragedy, Harvard University emptied its medical school and with the Red Cross and hospital nurses collected what was needed for a medical suite on a train bound for Halifax. Back in Boston there were community relief drives collecting schoolchildren's pennies and high society money and collecting a warehouse of relief supplies to be shipped to their northern neighbours. Emergency teams remained in Halifax for months and were part of the rebuilding effort.

Temporary housing named for Massachusetts Governor McCall on the newly created Massachusetts Avenue

With the explosion, Halifax was front page news around the world. This was part of my history growing up; knowing that people from other countries step up and help when there are disasters, war, and refugees.
Since then my province was the site of the crash of Swissair Flight 111. Local fishermen led the search for survivors and many volunteers helped in the recovery, while other locals brought food and blankets to emergency workers. For both recovery workers and the families of the victims, Nova Scotians offered their homes as places to rest, and churches as places to grieve.
Only a few years later, on the morning of 9/11 flights were diverted from New York City, with the Halifax airport taking the greatest number of aircraft - forty flights in total. It took five days before flights started moving again and in the meantime Nova Scotians opened their hearts and their homes to the 8000 unexpected visitors.
The year after the Halifax explosion the province of NS donated a large Christmas tree to the city of Boston in thanks and remembrance of their assistance. In 1971 the province started sending a tree every year, and also sends trees to two shelters for the homeless in Boston. Residents of Nova Scotia vie for the honour of having their tree selected for donation.
Nova Scotia's tree getting loaded for Boston
In 2013, after the bombing at the Boston marathon, the official Christmas tree of Boston was led out of Halifax by a group of runners, in honour of the victims of the bombings. This year's tree, a 72-year-old white spruce that stands 49 feet (15 m) tall, was donated by a Nova Scotian who was a former Boston marathoner. Just last week was Boston's Tree Lighting Ceremony, with the Mayor of Boston, the Premier of Nova Scotia, members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and, of course, Santa.
The 2015 official Christmas tree of Boston (and a pyrotechnic display)
As we put up our Christmas tree this year, I will be sharing these stories with my teenaged twins, and reminding them to be grateful, and to think of others, in their hometown, in their country, and around the world.
Best wishes to you and your families this holiday season.
This bracelet is mostly composed of charms "borrowed" from other bracelets. I will wear it everyday until Three Kings Day

Related Posts:

To hear a tale about international friendship during the Second World War, and the charm that I have to represent my Pandora friends around the world, please check out this post.

To read a story about my mother's youth during the Second World War please enjoy this post.

For a more current account of how terrorism came home for me have a look at this post from last month.

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