Christmas after the Halifax Explosion saw Nova Scotians rally around the children

Their city in ruins, survivors of the Halifax Explosion considered a big question as Christmas approached in 1917: Should they celebrate the holiday at all?

Holiday after disaster was especially meaningful for some, 'a nothing day' for others

A children's Christmas party is held in Halifax in 1917. Christmas took on extra meaning for some that year as they helped people who had lost family, friends, and much or all of what they owned. (City of Toronto Archives)

Their city in ruins, survivors of the Halifax Explosion considered a big question as Christmas approached in 1917: Should they celebrate the holiday at all?

About 2,000 people had been killed and 9,000 injured scant weeks before, when a ship collision in the harbour ignited what was then the largest human-caused explosion ever.   

"Many people felt that Christmas should be ignored," Janet Kitz, author of Shattered City: The Halifax Explosion and The Road to Recovery, told CBC's Mainstreet Halifax. 

There were funerals being held for the unidentified, and many people were in deep mourning.

Kitz said she knew one survivor that said he couldn't celebrate. "He called it 'a nothing day for us.' And I'm afraid that was the case for some, for many."

For many others, Christmas not only continued, but took on extra meaning as they helped people who had lost family, friends, and much or all of what they owned.

Started in newspapers

Janet Kitz, author of Shattered City: The Halifax Explosion and the Road to Recovery, said people's approach to Christmas post-disaster was mixed. (CBC)
The push to keep Christmas started in the city newspapers, says Nova Scotia Archives's Gary Shutlak, particularly in columns that catered to young people.

Shutlak, a senior reference archivist, said Mary (May) O'Regan's Sunshine Club Mailbag in the Halifax Chronicle, written under the pen name Cousin Peggy, was the first to argue, on Dec. 15, that children who had lost so much deserved a Christmas.

Two days later, Farmer Smith's Rainbow Club, written by Laura Carten, joined the cause.

"Cousin Peggy was looking for toys and money to put Christmas trees in all the hospitals so the children would have a Christmas tree," Shutlak said. "Farmer Smith was looking for things like [Christmas] stockings."

Students gave up their presents

At a public meeting, Santa Claus Limited was created through the board of trade to distribute gifts.

"But already even before the meeting, toys, food, chocolate, had been sent," Kitz said. "Children in one school ... outside the city gave up all their own Christmas presents and sent them to Halifax. And that was the spirit that emerged."

As many as 10,000 children were injured, orphaned or in need. 

"Some were in hospital, if they were injured," Kitz said. "Some were in temporary homes, because people all over the area had opened up their homes for children who'd been left without. Some had gone off to be with relatives. They were scattered."

'We had a lovely time'

Many people made an effort to celebrate Christmas, no matter the circumstances.

Doctors and nurses on early rounds sang Christmas carols. People volunteered their automobiles to help with gift distribution. And presents of all sorts began arriving from across the province by Dec. 19. 

A child injured in the Halifax Explosion sits in a hospital bed. (City of Toronto Archives. Fonds 1244, Item 1787)

Soon there was a Christmas tree in almost every hospital and a stocking at the foot of every children's bed. 

"For some children it would be wonderful," Kitz said. "The girl that I knew who was in hospital, whose favourite doctor was playing Santa Claus, said, 'We had a lovely time.'"

'The most meaningful Christmas'

One particularly noteworthy celebration was aboard the cable ship Lord Kelvin. Capt. William Squares DeCarteret, better known for retrieving bodies from the Titanic disaster aboard the Minia five years earlier, hosted a party on board for 24 children.

"They had Christmas dinner, Christmas tree, Santa Claus, all the normal things you would think of," Shutlak said. "And it was all paid for by Capt. DeCarteret himself."

People who took in the displaced also chose to celebrate.

"They too made great efforts to have parties, to have special meals, to have presents," Kitz said. "It made people very thoughtful. There was one woman ... she said, 'I'd spent the whole day on my feet doing things,' and she said, 'By evening I was so tired I could hardly move. But you know,' she said, 'I think it was the most meaningful Christmas that I ever had.'"

With files from CBC Mainstreet