On the morning of December 6, 1917, what was at that time history’s largest man-made explosion erupted in Halifax harbour. Caused when a French cargo ship carrying explosives collided with a Norwegian vessel, it levelled the entire north end of the city. About 2,000 people were killed, 9,000 injured and hundreds blinded.
In her book, Christmas in Atlantic Canada: Heartwarming Legends, Tales, and Traditions, Joyce Glasner reveals the scope of this tragedy: “At the worst possible time of year, 20,000 people found themselves homeless and destitute. Many had lost everything in the blast. There was hardly a family in the city that wasn’t affected in one way or another by the disaster. But those who suffered most, perhaps, were the children. Many children lost one or both parents in the explosion. Hundreds of others were separated from their parents in the chaos following the blast, some never to be reunited. Still others were wounded and hospitalized. All in all, it was estimated that 10,000 children were left homeless that December.”
Christmas as usual was nowhere to be seen. Gone were the holiday decorations and window displays of previous years; the explosion had shattered nearly every window in the area, and there was a glass shortage. As Glasner describes, “the windows of the buildings that were still standing had been boarded up in an effort to keep out the cold, snow, and looters.”
The darkest times, however, can foster resilience. On December 20, a group of the city’s merchants and concerned citizens formed Santa Claus Limited, to deliver hope to the city’s homeless children.
They placed an appeal for donations in The Halifax Herald and got to work. Trees and decorations went up in shelters and hospitals, and volunteers and doctors donned Santa suits. On Christmas Day, “the shelters all served Christmas dinner to their patrons, and the relief committee distributed food to victims who weren’t staying in shelters. That day, Santa visited each and every shelter and hospital to distribute gifts to the children.”
Christmas 1917 in Halifax was a time of loss, but it was also a time of generosity. Help came from across the continent: relief trains and medical units from the United States, aid from Canadian cities and donations from individual citizens.
In the words of one charitable giver, “This has been the saddest and yet the happiest Christmas I ever spent.”