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Nova Scotians learn the Christmas tree for Boston is far from free

Boston arborist Max Ford-Diamond worked to unpack the tree after it arrived on Boston Common on Nov. 18.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

SYDNEY, Nova Scotia — Giving is always better than receiving, the kind-hearted believe, but Nova Scotia officials expect something in return for the Christmas tree they haul to Boston each year.

The latest gift is a 47-foot white spruce that was cut on Cape Breton Island and trucked south for Boston’s official tree-lighting ceremony Dec. 1. It’s an annual gesture of thanks for Boston’s speedy assistance after a devastating explosion in 1917 killed nearly 2,000 people in Halifax and injured 9,000 more.

But Nova Scotians, who have been sending a tree since 1971, also want Bostonians to remember who is behind the celebration.


“We do believe it has significant marketing value,” said Jamie Baillie, opposition leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Nova Scotia. “I really have no issue with it.”

Until this month, however, most Nova Scotians did not realize just how generous they have been. According to an investigation by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., the province’s taxpayers footed a $179,000 (US dollars) bill for cutting, shipping, and surrounding last year’s tree with plenty of holiday pomp and circumstance.

The City of Boston received $30,000, WCVB-TV (Channel 5) took in $55,000 to televise the lighting, and $6,660 was spent on festivities at the Omni Parker House for the Nova Scotia delegation, which was flown to Boston and put up in hotels at a total cost of $9,600.

And then there was $1,200 in travel expenses for the Halifax town crier, who flexed his vocal muscle at celebrations in Nova Scotia and Boston, according to the CBC.

“It can sound a little high,” said Ed McHugh, who teaches business and marketing at Nova Scotia Community College in Halifax. “When you first look at this, the average Nova Scotian might have thought $10,000, $15,000, $20,000 to put a tree there.”


But digging into the numbers unveils a decent deal, McHugh said. The hourlong telecast by WCVB in Boston is estimated to reach more than 200,000 viewers, according to provincial officials. And the ceremony on Boston Common, scheduled for 6 to 8 p.m., is expected to attract up to 15,000 people, city officials said.

More than 15,000 lights decorated a 60-foot Canadian balsam fir tree, Nova Scotia’s gift in 1977 to Boston.David L. Ryan/Globe staff/file

(Perhaps struck by holiday hype, Nova Scotia’s premier, Stephen McNeil, has been telling people that 30,000 will show up.)

“When you look at the entire scope of the thing, it’s a pretty good value for the province of Nova Scotia,” McHugh said.

The province’s $30,000 payment to the city covers less than half of the ceremony’s $85,000 production cost, said Ryan Woods, spokesman for the Boston Parks and Recreation Department. In exchange, Nova Scotia remains lead sponsor of the event.

“It’s a longstanding tradition that we hope to continue for many, many years,” Woods said. “It comes from a great story, but a lot of people here don’t know the history.”

The Halifax explosion during World War I — caused by the collision of a French munitions ship and a Norwegian freighter — was the largest blast of man-made materials until the atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima in 1945.

Mary Tulle, tourism director for Cape Breton Island, said the tree’s cost should not be a deal-breaker. She recalled how her grandmother, living three hours from Halifax, watched the dishes shake during the explosion.

“Why do we have to stop saying thank you?” Tulle said.

Workers installed the Christmas tree, a gift from Nova Scotia to Boston, ahead of the 1991 celebrations.David L. Ryan/Globe staff/file

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at