By Sarah Readdean
Boston University News Service
Thousands of people gathered on the Boston Common Thursday, Dec. 2, to enjoy holiday songs, hear from Boston’s newly elected mayor, Michelle Wu, honor the city’s special ties with Nova Scotia and see the Common’s 48-foot white spruce illuminate the park.
WCVB Channel 5 co-anchor Anthony Everett introduced the ceremony as a “symbol of hope and friendship,” describing it as “a true partnership between Boston and the good folks of Nova Scotia.”
This year’s 80th annual tree lighting celebration was the 50th year that the tree has been gifted by the Canadian province, traveling more than 700 miles by land and sea to Boston.
On Dec. 6, 1917, two ships, one carrying ammunition, collided in Halifax Harbor, resulting in the largest human-made explosion until the atomic bomb. The city of Boston responded, sending medical help and supplies via train to the devastated town. Nova Scotia sent the first Christmas tree to Boston in 1971 to thank the city for its assistance.
Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston, with two members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police on either side, expressed endless gratitude for the kindness Boston showed 104 years ago, “when we needed you most.”
“You can just imagine the hopelessness and helplessness that we were feeling, even though we’re very resilient people. And then we got news that help was on the way,” Houston said. “We are forever grateful. Give yourselves a round of applause for that.”
Also hosting the event was WCVB’s Shayna Seymour, who spent time in Nova Scotia in October. She said the nature there is beautiful and the people are “warm and welcoming.”
“When we were in Halifax and we would say we were visiting from Boston, it was like you made instant friendship,” Seymour said.
Several people from the province attended the tree lighting ceremony.
“This is a gift from all of us in Nova Scotia to the people of Boston for being there,” Houston said after a projected video told the history of the explosion and the tradition of the tree.
Wu came on the stage about halfway through the night’s performances and noted that the bond between Boston and Nova Scotia is a reminder of the interconnectedness that has been seen throughout the pandemic.
“But before the pandemic, before Zoom, before email, before text messages, 50 years ago, we were already connected, reaching out to see what we could do, how we could be of service in that moment,” Wu said. “And it’s incredible to see that bond and that friendship continue to this day.”
The show featured performers who brought their own style and holiday twist to classic Christmas songs including “Winter Wonderland,” “Silver Bells,” “O Holy Night” and more.
Along with local singers and dancers, performances were also made by Grammy Award winner Darlene Love, the cast of “A Christmas Story: The Musical,” who performed “What a Mother Does,” singer Heather Rankin and Beolach, a folk group from Nova Scotia.
The folk group — which featured a fiddle, guitar and keyboard — sang and danced to Rankin’s “Wrap it Up” as well as “Joy to the World,” in a style that Houston said was inspired by Irish and Scottish music from the province’s Cape Breton Island.
At the end of the two-hour celebration, the hosts, performers, premiere and mayor, along with Santa Claus, a snowman and a reindeer, joined together on stage as the 10-second countdown began. Wu and her two sons pushed up on a candy cane lever and the tree lit up behind the stage.
Santa let out a jolly laugh, fireworks began to go off, white papers flew through the air like snow, music played and crowds cheered. Before the crowd began to disperse, they all joined in singing “Deck the Halls.”
Katya Anderson, a junior at Suffolk University, stood on a sidewalk in the Common handing out candy canes — “two for a dollar” — trying to make money to help pay for college.
Anderson said she enjoyed the show but was concerned about the contradictory image that was given off by Wu and the city in certain ways the event was celebrated.
“Boston elected a democratic mayor who ran largely on an environmental platform,” Anderson said, “and then they sent all that paper confetti in the air.”
Mary Ann and Larry Murphy, of Bedford, knew the story of the Halifax Explosion because they had gone on their honeymoon in Nova Scotia. Another tie the province has to the U.S., they said, is celebrating the Fourth of July.
Thursday was the Murphys’ first Boston Common Tree Lighting, but they said they would definitely come back to see it again.
“It was nice to see the relationship and the bond between Boston and Nova Scotia,” Larry Murphy said. “I thought it was really special what they did.”