The tradition behind the Boston Common Christmas tree has spanned decades and a pandemic: “It’s a symbol of what we can do”

About 40 miles from Halifax, Nova Scotia, on the Gourley family’s fifth generation dairy farm, a tree stands so tall it still contains the lights that were on some 20 Christmases past. The lights remain on the tree as it outgrown the family’s tallest ladder a long time ago.

Bette Gourley, the family matriarch, told CBS News’s Nancy Chen that White Spruce has been growing up alongside her family for almost four decades now. But, as a waiting Christmas tree, it’s still a few feet away from reaching the height it needs to reach before it’s sent over 600 miles to Boston, Massachusetts.

“It’s been five or eight years since they said they might consider us,” Chester Gourley said. “So that’s something we’ve been waiting for. And it’s a great honor.”

It’s a tradition that dozens of Nova Scotia families have played before them. The spruce that the province sends out each year becomes Boston’s official Christmas tree.

The Christmas tree arrives at Boston Common
The annual gift of an evergreen Christmas tree from Nova Scotia arrived in Boston Common on November 18, 2021. The white spruce is 48 feet tall and 60 years old.

John Tlumacki / The Boston Globe via Getty Images

It’s a gesture of appreciation more than 100 years after Boston lent a hand in the aftermath of the Halifax Explosion – a disaster that was the largest man-made explosion until Hiroshima.

New Glasgow Town Crier James Stewart told the story: During World War I Halifax carried ships preparing to cross the Atlantic in convoy.

On December 6, 1917, the day of the explosion, the SS Mont Blanc was en route to France when it collided with the SS Imo. Mont Blanc was loaded with explosives.

“When the collision took place, sparks basically flew and one of the ships had ammunition on deck,” said Stewart. “It was, in a nutshell, overloaded.”

Just 20 minutes later, as people gathered to see what had happened, the ship erupted into a huge fireball.

“The city was basically flattened, the northern end of the city,” said Stewart.

Church damaged after Halifax harbor explosion in 1917
The northern part of the city of Halifax, Nova Scotia, was destroyed by explosions from a military ship in the harbor on December 6, 1917.

Bettmann / Getty Images

Around 2,000 people were killed in the explosion and around 9,000 people were injured, many from shards of glass. Almost 600 people were treated for eye injuries. To make matters worse, rescue efforts were hampered by a blizzard that blanketed the region the next day, blocking aid from other major cities.

But Boston was able to help.

“Boston was the best bet because it was a pretty big city, pretty close, and they sent the emergency trains,” Stewart said.

Based on a single telegraph call for help, medical teams from Massachusetts left that night. Their train made its way through the snow to set up relief camps in the city. Their arrival brought hope to the people of Halifax.

“Well, it looks a lot like the arrival of the cavalry,” said Stewart. “They brought help to Halifax when Halifax needed it most. And that is something that has never been forgotten.”

A grateful Halifax delivered a Christmas tree to Boston the following year. The donation was renewed in 1971 and then every year since.

Sandra Johnston, the Manager of the Tree for Boston program, reviews applicants from across Nova Scotia. She said she was looking for a tree about 45 to 50 feet tall. She keeps a list of about 15 trees.

“I don’t think I could sleep at night if I didn’t have a list of trees coming up,” said Johnston.

Trees are named by the public as well as by volunteer landowners. The trees have become a link between the two communities that neither distance nor time has changed.

“Most Nova Scotians love and remember the help Boston gave us 104 years ago,” said Johnston. “And you don’t have to go too far when talking to someone in Nova Scotia to find that connection.”

Each year, as the tree makes the long journey from Nova Scotia to Boston, local residents line the truck’s route with departing parades. The journey persists through winter storms, city traffic and even Covid pandemic19.

Last year, when land borders were closed to non-essential goods, the tree traveled by container ship.

Earlier this month, a 60-year-old tree from a Cape Breton nonprofit was cheered as it was lit on Boston Common. Nova Scotia Premier and Boston Mayor Michelle Wu attended the event.

Annual Christmas Tree Lighting at Boston Common
The annual Christmas tree lighting event took place at Boston Common on December 2, 2021. When lit, the tree was surrounded by fireworks.

Jim Davis / The Boston Globe via Getty Images

“It’s a symbol of what we can do,” said Wu, “as we come together to see how we can be there for each other. I am extremely grateful to Nova Scotia for continuing this important tradition. “

It is a tradition that the Gourley family will be proud to participate in one day. The tree that dominates their courtyard is just a small token of appreciation for help from a city far away so many years ago.

“Well, they have helped us tremendously,” said Bette Gourley. “And it’s just a thank you. And I think it’s the – you know, I think it’s the right thing to do.”

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