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History of the Holidays in Ottawa’s Original Downtown: Part 3 of 3

December 16, 2023

At long last, we’ve reached the final installment in our series of blogs about holiday traditions of yesteryear in Ottawa’s Original Downtown!

For many, the holiday season is a time to reflect upon many of the things we take for granted that allow us to celebrate the holiday season with friends and family. It’s a sentiment that people like Chef Ric [CB1] and the folks involved with the Help Santa Toy Parade are all too familiar with as they work to uplift disadvantaged persons in our communities and help them make the most of this holiday season with what little they have available to them.

With that said, there are some aspects of life in the Nation’s Capital that seem so commonplace and mundane, it’s not always easy to realize that we might take them for granted at all! And it was the absence of one of those very services that many don’t even think twice about that led to the creation of one of Ottawa’s more infamous – and perhaps strangest – antiquated holiday traditions.

Chef Ric Watson prepares a large helping of stuffing; one of the components of the thousands of meals he serves to those in need every Christmas, c. 2015. (Image: Ottawa Citizen, source )

1954-59: Burning of the Greens

These days, disposing of your Christmas tree is as simple as placing it curbside and waiting for a garbage truck to pick it up. But that wasn’t always the case.

In fact, The Kitchissippi Museum notes that during the mid 20th century, Ottawans were largely left to their own devices when it came to figuring out what to do with their trees once the holiday season had ended. Many tree owners and tree sellers elected to simply abandon their trees wherever it was most convenient to leave them. This was no minor issue, either; left unattended, the trees would blow around in the wind and be littered across the streets as well as public and private lots. Eventually, they would dry out and create potentially catastrophic fire hazards. The Public Works Commissioner at the time, Frank Askwith, recalled one particular case in an interview:

“In one case we found a frame building completely banked with Christmas trees. A match or dropped cigarette butt would have caused a flash fire that would have enveloped the house in flame in a matter of seconds. A fire like that could jump to nearby houses and cause a real conflagration.” – Public Works Commissioner Frank C. Askwith, 1946

Initially, the city tried to combat the issue by charging tree sellers (who were the more problematic component of the situation) a $2 deposit that could only be refunded once their lots were cleared; this did little to solve the problem. The fee was upped to $3, then $10 before the city tasked its Sanitation Department with collecting the trees and burning them in small batches. This finally seemed to solve the issue effectively enough that complaints of trees blowing around in the Nation’s Capital largely dried up.

A news clipping from the Ottawa Citizen details the practice of burning used Christmas trees in small batches in the Rideau area. (Image: The Kitchissippi Museum, source)

But the story doesn’t end there. In 1954, city officials decided to turn the disposal of the trees into an event all unto itself, which they officially dubbed the “Burning of the Greens.” Present at the first ever iteration of this event was Ottawa’s then-mayor Charlotte Whitton, who gave a short speech to 3,500 spectators before the 50-foot pile of roughly 40,000 trees was set alight in a spectacular blaze. The event was a massive success and would be repeated in the years that followed, eventually including parking for over 5,000 vehicles, trucks playing music and snack bars selling hot dogs and cola (there were no BeaverTails back then – can you imagine?!)

A snapshot from a 1959 edition of the Ottawa Citizen shows firemen and spectators gazing in awe at the bonfire at that year’s Burning of the Greens. (Image: The Kitchissippi Museum, source )

The event was not without its logistical challenges. By the time the pile of trees had been assembled and was ready to burn, it was often covered in snow and ice. This made lighting the pile a challenge and necessitated the use of accelerants. Also, Burning of the Greens ’56 was spoiled for many attendees when some pranksters lit the pile before the crowds arrived, causing many to miss the blaze while it was at its peak.

Unfortunately, the Burning of the Greens was not to last, and this was due to a mishap that occurred during the 1959 iteration of the event. That year was set to feature the biggest fire yet, with roughly 52,000 trees piled up and ready to burn. Mayor George H. Nelms had the honour of taking a torch to the pile; unbeknownst to him, however, the pile had been soaked in excessive amounts of varsol and other accelerants to circumvent past issues related to setting the trees ablaze. Fumes from the chemicals reacted with Mayor Nelms’ torch and exploded, engulfing him in flames. His clothes were ruined, the left side of his face was blistered and inflamed, his left eye was swollen shut and his eyebrows and eyelashes were gone.

“I was about five feet from the trees with the long-handled torch…all I can remember is a whoosh and a bang and there were flames all around me. It was a close call. I wouldn’t want to come any closer.” – Mayor George H. Nelms, 1959

A portrait of George H. Nelms, who was Ottawa’s mayor from 1956 to 1960. (Image: The Kitchissippi Museum, source )

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was decided after the accident that the Sanitation Department would hand over full control of the city’s tree burning operation to the Fire Department. Shortly thereafter, the original practice of privately burning the trees in small batches was resumed, and the Burning of the Greens was no more.

The days of Santa riding on top of streetcars and Christmas trees being burned in massive piles are long behind us, and Ottawa’s Original Downtown has seen countless changes implemented to its landscape over the course of its nearly 200-year history. If there’s one thing that hasn’t changed over the years, however, it’s that Downtown Rideau is, and always has been, Ottawa’s premier destination for Christmas shopping and holiday cheer!

With over 600 businesses in the area, many of which have a history spanning several decades, all of Rideau’s storefronts are capable of helping you find exactly what you’re looking to get that special someone for the holidays. Some of Rideau oldest stores still in business today include Gregory’s Leather, Letellier Shoes and Rent-A-Bike just to name a few!

Not to mention, there are still plenty of events happening in Ottawa’s Original Downtown during the holiday season that are ready and willing to be incorporated into your family’s holiday traditions. Visit the Rideau Centre to check out their 36-foot-tall Christmas tree or catch a festive performance of The Good Lovelies at the National Arts Centre!

The holiday décor that goes up in the Rideau Centre this time of year is always a beautiful sight to see! (Image: CF Rideau Centre)

Looking to learn more about where to shop along Rideau?

Check out our directory of all the shopping destinations in Ottawa’s Original Downtown and use this handy parking guide to plan your trip here!