Do you remember the old song “Tie a yellow ribbon round the old oak tree” where a man returning to his hometown after 3 years in prison was unsure whether his lover would want him back, and asked her to decorate an old oak tree with a yellow ribbon if she did? The story unfolds throughout the song as he worries about his fate and asks the bus driver to look out for him as he ‘can’t bear’ to see the tree if it has no ribbons on it. Luckily for him, the song has a happy ending as he sees “a hundred yellow ribbons round the old oak tree” and we feel his joy and excitement at “coming home” with the whole bus cheering for him too. This is a simple, heart-warming story which makes us smile and we cannot help but imagine the old tree covered from top to bottom in yellow ribbons, announcing how much he is loved, and acting as a metaphor too, since the oak tree is a symbol for endurance, steadfastness and reliability. It’s also a great backdrop to Tree Dressing Day, which this year is on December 5th in the UK.
Tree dressing is an ancient custom that celebrates the life-giving properties of trees which has been practiced in many cultures over the years. In Japan, trees are decorated with strips of white paper, or ‘tanzaku’, bearing poems and wishes, and many Buddhist and Hindu festivals decorate trees with material and ribbons to celebrate our connection with nature too.
Some of the origins are thought to come from the festivals of the Green Man, a Pagan representative of masculine divinity, who is believed to symbolise the cycle of life, death and re-birth, heralding in the new life in spring. He is often thought of as being a guardian of nature, and forests and trees in particular, often appearing as a face in a tree, or covered in leaves. In the past, the Green Man was honoured, as the trees and our connection to the natural world was celebrated throughout the year in different festivals and ceremonies. In recent years though, modern life has changed much of that for most of us and we remain detached from nature for much of our working day. However, as deforestation and its impact on climate change are now very firmly on the agenda, we can no longer afford to ignore our responsibility to the trees on our planet, and we can start by respecting the trees in our own local area. Tree Dressing Day is therefore a perfect way to announce your commitment to the world and celebrate these majestic, life-giving natural wonders.
Some trees can live for thousands of years, making them among the longest-living lifeforms on earth. The oldest tree in the world is thought to be a Great Basin bristlecone pine tree in the US. At more than 5,000 years old, it is more than 40 times older than the oldest known human (122 years). In the UK, the Fortingall Yew in Perthshire is believed to be our oldest tree, estimated at between 2,000 and 3,000 years old. Yew tree are our longest-living species and are not considered as ancient trees until they are around 800-900 years old, however, oaks and sweet chestnuts can also live for over 1,000 years.
Celebrating trees is what Tree Dressing Day is all about. It was started in 1990 by Common Ground, a Dorset-based conservation charity who decorated a group of London Plane trees in Covent Garden, with the message that “every tree counts”. Since then, people have re-taken up this ancient ritual and celebrate by decorating their local trees right across the country, sometimes with storytelling, dance and music to really bring the message home; that trees are our lifeline and we need to look after them.
Tree Dressing Day comes at the end of National Tree Week (27th November to 5th December) which marks the start of the main tree planting season in the UK (November to March each year). It’s easy to get involved and there are lots of different things you can use to decorate your favourite trees.
- Find a tree or set of trees that are important to you or your local community. It could be an ancient and imposing tree in a park where people have shared secrets for centuries, or an avenue of trees that line a popular walking route to your setting on a suburban street, or a single tree that creates a magical silhouette as the twilight descends
- Decide how you want to decorate it/them and plan the resources you’ll need to make your vision a reality
- Create your masterpiece in your setting with the help of the children
- Dress the tree in time for Sunday 5th December taking care not to disturb the local wildlife
- Take a photo of your decorated trees and perhaps have some singing and dancing to add to the celebrations
- Remember to remove all your decorations a few days after the event and return the tree and local habitat to its natural state – you might even want to ‘thank’ the tree in your own way, and we hear they are partial to the odd hug too!
There are lots of ideas for dressing trees on the internet but The Woodland Trust has listed some easy ones here. Dressing a tree can count towards earning points for their Green Tree Schools Award initiative which teaches young people about trees, wildlife and woodlands. We’ve created a table below listing a few ideas of decorations you could use.
Whatever you do, we’d love to see the results, so send us your photos and stories to firstname.lastname@example.org and let’s see if we can’t light up the country in our appreciation and celebration of our wonderful trees.
For more information, see: