Gardening Blog

« Previous | Main | Next »

Tree Dressing

Post categories:

Sally Nex Sally Nex | 10:45 UK time, Thursday, 1 December 2011

Decorating Christmas trees is so last year. This weekend, it's all about sprucing up your local spruce (or oak, or beech, or ash).

Tree Dressing (Photo: Weald & Downland Open Air Museum)

Tree Dressing (Photo: Weald & Downland Open Air Museum)

I'm on about National Tree Dressing Day, always held on the first weekend in December, which celebrates our trees by making them centre of attention and giving them a starring role in gardens, parks, and local woodland.

The ceremony has roots deep in legend and ancient custom, going right back to the pagan Green Man symbolising the cycle of growth, rebirth and the natural world. Its modern incarnation is a relatively recent invention (by Common Ground who revived tree dressing in 1990). You can use a tree dressing to celebrate trees in general, honour one particular tree, or use trees to send messages (in Japan they write prayers on strips of fabric or paper and tie them to the tree).

Trees have always held something of a mystical role in our collective consciousness. I like to think of the twisted oak at the end of our garden watching while our house was built by some long-lost 19th-century farmer, probably chuckling wryly to itself as he dug each stone, by hand, from what's now our back garden. Even recent additions like the Ginkgo biloba currently turning bright butter yellow opposite the shed link me directly to the age of the dinosaurs through their prehistoric DNA.

Lanterns (Photo: Weald & Downland Open Air Museum)

Lanterns (Photo: Weald & Downland Open Air Museum)

So it just seems right that we honour that once a year by dressing ourselves up in silly costumes and masks, dancing around a tree hung with lanterns or ribbons. You can go and join in with a nearby ritual - see below - or dress your own tree in a private back-yard ceremony.

And of course whether or not you take part this weekend, you do your own little bit of tree-dressing each year when you drag that Norway spruce into the living room and put the mince pies on to heat. It's exactly the same thing: a need to place trees at the centre of the story.

The Victorians tacitly acknowledged this by using decorations taken from nature to 'dress' their Christmas trees. You can do the same: forget foil-wrapped chocolate, tinsel and baubles, in the 19th century it was all about objects they found from around the garden, like pinecones, holly berries and evergreen leaves.

Herbs and nuts, like cinnamon sticks and walnuts, were wrapped in ribbon and tied on branches; and dried slices of orange or lemon were threaded on to raffia (full instructions here) It all sounds like a huge improvement on that shiny ribbony stuff that gets caught in the vacuum cleaner.

Just a few of the tree dressing celebrations being held all over the country this weekend:

  • Sherwood Forest, Nottinghamshire: Decorate a tree Robin Hood might have climbed, including workshops to show you how.
  • Weald and Downland Open Air Museum, Chichester, West Sussex: hundreds of home-made lanterns hung from aspen trees form the centrepiece of a candle-lit after dark celebration.
  • Afton Park Apple Farm, Isle of Wight: decorate the apple trees with flags, ribbons, lanterns or cards.
  • Newhailes, Musselburgh, East Lothian: eco-friendly tree dressing on this National Trust Scotland estate - bring your own recycled decorations.
  • Lauderdale House, Highgate Hill, London: children from 10 local schools have created special artwork to dress trees for an exhibition running till 11 December.

Sally Nex is a garden writer and blogger and part of the BBC Gardening team.

Read Sally Nex's Gardening Blog posts.


  • Comment number 1.

    "The ceremony has roots deep in legend and ancient custom, going right back to the pagan Green Man symbolising the cycle of growth, rebirth and the natural world"

    Neo-pagan bunkum. The Green Man symbolism is , in Britain at least, found specifically in Christian churches. There is no evidence that the ceremony is of any antiquity at all. It's made up, though based on the Christan Christmas tree, not on any known pagan custom.

    The original Christmas trees were decorated with stuff from nature - principally fruit and nuts. If you think for a moment you might remember stories about fruit and a tree from the bible.


More from this blog...


These are some of the popular topics this blog covers.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.