Winnipeg’s civic Christmas tree glows like a beacon on Main Street with 64,400 lights and colour, but the very first one that went up in front of the old gingerbread city hall was much dimmer and had a far darker undercurrent.
At 7:30 p.m. sharp on Dec. 21, 1915, Mayor Richard Deans Waugh hit the switch and turned on 1,000 electric bulbs strung around the city’s first public Christmas tree, a 69-foot (21-metre) tall fir in the front courtyard of the Victorian city hall at Main Street and Market Avenue.
The warm but dim glow revealed the only other flourish on the tree — flags and ensigns from Canada’s First World War allies.
“It was partly, you know, joy — but a little bit of propaganda in there, too,” said local history blogger Christian Cassidy.
Standing in the shadow of both the tree and war, Waugh turned to the gathered crowd of several hundred. He urged them to help provide cheer for families of men still fighting overseas, of those returned injured, and of the many who never made it back.
“Every man who has returned from the front has done his duty in behalf of the greatest fight for justice that the world has ever witnessed, and it’s up to us to see that they and their families have a good time this Christmas,” Waugh told the crowd “amid a volley of applause,” the Manitoba Free Press reported.
“Many kiddies will miss their daddies this Christmas, and we are going to make them as happy as is possible under the present circumstances.”
That evening of the first lighting, a military band with the 45th Battalion entertained the crowd and donation boxes were set around the city hall square for contributions to the Santa Claus fund to benefit some 4,400 wives and children of soldiers — all of it organized by the Winnipeg Returned Soldiers association.
“Today we think of [the tree lighting] as this kind of happy kickoff to the holiday season, but it was mainly done then to raise money to buy food and toys for war orphans … and to entertain kids who didn’t know it yet, but over the next three years, thousands of them would end up being war orphans,” Cassidy said.
The first contribution was a $1 bill from “a Norwegian,” the Winnipeg Evening Tribune reported, highlighting the support from various nationalities. Many newsboys also generously dropped in their change, the story said.
Various military bands took turns giving concerts in front of the tree every evening from 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. until Christmas Eve, while Boy Scouts were stationed at the different boxes.
“They ended up collecting $959, which is about $23,000 in today’s money. So it was really beyond their wildest dreams, how much they were able to collect over just a period of four days,” Cassidy said.
The money was split between a group that looked after the widows and orphans and another that benefited wives and children of soldiers still living.
“Just for the widows’ and orphans’ portion, it was enough to buy seven tons of food that was delivered on Christmas Day,” Cassidy said.
The tree lighting was initially planned to take place Dec. 11, but marshlands outside the city had not yet frozen over, which made it impractical to trudge through the countryside to find the fir.
Eventually, the ground solidified enough to search muskeg and moors and discover the behemoth along the Greater Winnipeg Water District line leading to Shoal Lake.
Work had just begun that year to clear land and dig tunnels to lay down the aqueduct that would supply Winnipeg’s drinking water.
In a hyperbole-laden story about the city’s wartime Christmas, published Dec. 18, 1915, the Free Press said “the grandfather of all Christmas trees has been uprooted from his ancestral soil.
“His hundreds of descendants … swept their tresses to the ground and moaned to see the patriarch dragged away, bound by chains to his captive’s box sleigh. They could not understand that his was really a glorious end.”
In 1916, the city was able to secure its tree much sooner, so the lighting ceremony was about 10 days earlier than in 1915, and the fundraising efforts got a head start well before that.
“The first year … they didn’t know what to expect. In the second year, they were able to already start going to people and businesses and asking for money,” Cassidy said, although he could not find a grand total raised by Christmas.
“But the day the tree was erected, they already had $6,000 in the bank to spend. So that doesn’t include what was collected over the next 10 or 12 days.”
The civic tree events ended when the war did, in 1918. It wasn’t until 1928 that Mayor Dan McLean revived the city hall tree, which became a tradition that carried on through the Second World War, though there was no formal fundraiser associated with it.
It also expanded, with several trees and many more lights filling the plaza in front of the old building.
“It was kind of a whole winter wonderland park that they had set up up,” Cassidy said.
After the Second World War, the event seemed to come to another halt before Mayor Stephen Juba brought it back in 1957, integrating the tree lighting with that of the light displays strung through downtown.
That has pretty much carried through to this day, with the exception of 1962 and ’63, when they tore down the old city hall and built the new one, Cassidy said.
Since then there has only been one other year without a civic tree. That was in 2019, when a Thanksgiving weekend storm pummelled the city with heavy, wet snow that damaged thousands of trees.
The cleanup kept city forestry crews so busy there was no time to spend finding, cutting and decorating a tree for city hall.
That eventually led to another change in the city’s holiday tradition.
City officials long ago gave up their hike into the bush to find a tree, instead turning to residents for a donated one. For decades, a Colorado blue spruce was selected from the yard of someone offering it up to the city to be adorned in upward of 10,000 lights.
Typically about 12 metres tall, the neighbourhood trees never matched the height of that first one. And never will, as tradition has evolved once again.
Following the 2019 storm, the city purchased an artificial tree, deeming it more economical than spending $25,000 every year to cut one down and transport it to city hall.
It set the city back about $300,000 but should last 20 to 25 years “and beyond, if we take good care of it,” current Mayor Brian Bowman said.
“It’s one of those things where there is an initial up-front cost, but over the lifespan of it, it’ll save money.”
Environmental sustainability also played a part in the change, Bowman said.
“At a time when we’re trying to plant a million new trees to protect our tree canopy, the idea of cutting down a tree that would otherwise be healthy … does seem counter-narrative to the efforts.”
The 15-metre synthetic sapling, with its 8,000 ornaments and tens of thousands of lights, draws a constant flow of people posing for photos. And that’s during the daytime, before it really shimmers, Bowman said.
The tree may be fake but the sentiment is not, he said.
“Back in 1915, well over 100 years ago, it was done to help rally the community together. I think it’s still doing that.”
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