Nova Scotia

This city halfway around the world has a giant Christmas tree from Nova Scotia

The Boston tree gets all the buzz, the big ceremony and the send-off from Parade Square. But there is a lesser-known Christmas tree tradition in Nova Scotia.

How a Halifax gift became the main event of an annual Japanese festival

A Christmas tree from Halifax is the focal point of a holiday celebration halfway across the globe. (Masao Oikawa)

Floating on a barge at the fore of a seaside city halfway around the world, a Nova Scotia balsam fir casts a glow 50,000 lights strong that people from all over Japan come to see.

Every year for about two decades, a giant Christmas tree has travelled from Halifax to Hakodate.

The holiday tradition is little-known here but highly celebrated in the city 10,000 kilometres away.

Twin cities half a world apart

Hakodate, located on Japan's northern island of Hokkaido, boasts stunning mountain vistas and bay views.

It is also home to hot springs where monkeys like to bathe. You can find daily radiation reports for the city online after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in March 2011.

Thomas Trappenberg and his family at the 2011 Christmas Fantasy festival. (Masao Oikawa)

But Hakodate also bears similarities to Halifax — it has a busy port, a star-shaped citadel and northerly climate. 

In fact the two are twin cities, a designation more than 30 years old.

The Christmas Fantasy festival

From that bond was born the tradition of gifting a massive balsam fir to Hakodate for its annual Christmas Fantasy festival.

Thomas Trappenberg, president of the Halifax-Hakodate Friendship Association, has seen first-hand how big a deal the tree is during that holiday event.

The tree stands tall on its floating barge, overlooking the city in front of a row of red brick warehouses that line the waterfront.

"It's really the centrepiece of the whole festival," Trappenberg said.

Hakodate Christmas Fantasy celebrations run Dec. 1-25. (Masao Oikawa)

Five years ago, Trappenberg attended a ceremony with his family and got to flip the switch for the lights on Christmas Day.

He said the tree means a lot to the town.

"They're very proud that they have this festival which is so well-known in Japan now," he said.

Big balsam fir, big voyage

This year's Christmas tree was a 13-metre balsam fir from New Germany, N.S.

"It was tough to get in a container," said John Simmons, Halifax's urban forester who managed the tree from its choosing to its shipment to Japan.

This year's tree left Nova Scotia on Sept. 28 for its voyage to Japan, which takes over a month.

From truck to train to ship

Simmons said the tree was trucked to Montreal, travelled to Vancouver by train, then shipped across the ocean to Hakodate in order to arrive well in advance of the Christmas Fantasy festival's opening ceremony Dec. 1.

Halifax pays for the tree — which usually costs about $3,500 — and its truck ride to Montreal. The city of Hakodate picks up the tab for the tree's journey from Quebec to Japan.

As for why the annual tradition is not better known to Nova Scotians, Simmons said Halifax could probably do a better job of tooting its own horn.


Katy Parsons

Associate Producer

Katy Parsons has been a journalist with CBC in Nova Scotia for more than 10 years. She's worked on news, current affairs and lifestyle programming. Contact her with story ideas at