Thursday, 1 December 2016

Folklore: Early December and Tree Dressing Day

At the start of December, Christmas trees are being put up and decorated all over the country. But there are also folklore traditions associated with tree dressing.

One modern custom is Tree Dressing Day, which falls on the first weekend of December each year. It was started by charity Common Ground in 1990 as an expression of a love for trees and a chance for communities to gather and celebrate them. This year, community events are being encouraged with the support of the Woodland Trust, which has produced a pack of ideas you can download.

The Common Ground website says:
Tree dressing is a powerful way of expressing our relationship with trees. Organising a Tree Dressing Day in your community is a wonderful way of saying ‘thank you’ to the trees where you live. It is also the ideal moment to share tree stories with friends, neighbours and colleagues. This year – and every year – join the many thousands of people across the UK who celebrate Tree Dressing Day and make sure your community’s voice is heard by saying thank you to the trees in your neighbourhood.
Common Ground also says that Tree Dressing Day is a chance for people to reflect on the social and cultural history of their area, and the role trees have played in shaping this story. It mentions that tree dressing is based on many old seasonal, magical and spiritual customs from all over the world. The website goes on to list some of them, including:

  • The practice in Japan of decorating trees with strips of white paper, or tanzaku, bearing wishes and poems. 
  • The modern trend of ‘yarn bombing’ - wrapping bright fabrics and yarns around trees.
  • The Buddhist tradition of tying ribbons around the trunk of the Bodhi tree in homage to Buddha.
  • The annual Hindu festival of Raksha Bandhan when coloured strings are tied to trees to call upon the power of nature to protect loved ones.
  • The "Celtic" custom of tying cloth dipped in water from a holy well to a "clootie tree"

Now, I am sure many pagans in the UK are going to wince at that last one. Although there are historic customs at some holy wells for attaching tiny strips of natural fabric to trees as clooties or clouties and then allowing them to be disintigrated by the elements, it has got a bit out of hand. Too many well-meaning but misguided people are tying manmade fabric that doesn't rot to trees all over the country, even in places where it wasn't traditional.

These are often causing a huge build-up of stuff that can actually damage the trees and even harm wildlife. Volunteers then have to spend their time removing it to preserve the landscape, which isn't ideal. I have blogged about an exhibition related to that in the past, and you can read it here:

Nevertheless, I love the idea of Tree Dressing Day - especially if the items that the trees are being decorated with will be removed by Twelfth Night or are quickly biodegradable, such as paper, natural fibres or unfired clay shapes. Or you could hang nuts and slices of fruit on the branches for wildlife to enjoy.

You can download a free Tree Dressing resource pack here:

The photo at the top shows a decorated tree in a south London garden. The other show controversial tree dressing at Camlet Moat. All pictures are copyright Lucya Starza.


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