Dressing the World Tree

Juleigh Howard-Hobson

There are sacred traditions found the world over that are uncannily similar to each other–despite the fact that time and distance separate them. Tree dressing is one of the most common, and one of the most recorded, of these ritual acts.

The Ancient Greeks celebrated a festival called Aiora, ordered by the god Dionysus himself, which incorporated festooning trees with ribbons in honor of Erigone, whose father showed the god how to make wine. The Christmas tree, whose roots lie in the Yule tree of the distant Northern past, has long been decorated to celebrate a holy season of light. Charles Darwin, when sailing around the world on The Beagle, came upon a tree in Argentina, known as Walleechu, which was embellished with everything from cigars to food items hanging from its branches by brightly colored wool.

In Hong Kong there are trees called The Lam Tsuen Wishing Trees  into which people toss oranges that have joss paper wrapped around them, in hopes that  the oranges are caught by the branches and stay in the tree (in other words, the tree accepts the offering), then the wish written on the paper will come to pass.   Japanese Shinto tradition holds that spirits reside in natural objects such as rocks, rivers … and trees. When a tree residing spirit is found, the tree is ritually and regularly decorated with strips of white paper or cloth to honor it.

By far and away the most complicated tree dressing traditions come from the British Isles, where there are Clootie Trees, Cloutie Trees, Clottie Trees, May Trees, Wishing Trees, Fairy Trees, Raggy Trees, Raggedy Trees (or Bushes)  and any number of other holy trees that are traveled to, worshipped, adorned, decorated, and festooned to this day.

There are some differences to these trees, some only have coins hammered into their bark while others have only pins, or metal charms, or nails, some have strips of clothing (Clootie, Clottie, Cloutie) festooned upon them, or ribbons or rags, others have a combination of these: clothing nailed or pinned, charms hung from ribbons or yarn…. There were clearer distinctions made in the past than there are now, as these days people travel much more freely and strictly local traditions have faded and/or become mixed with other traditions.

But one thing emerges clearly, the holiness of certain British trees is of great significance and certain people still respond to that.

 Offerings made at these trees are one of two kinds—they are made for the purpose of hopefully gaining a wish come true (Fairy Trees, May Trees and Wishing Trees typically) or they are made with the intent of being cured of something. The Clootie/Cloutie/Clottie Trees that traditionally must grow near holy wells are the most curing of these trees—it is said that if you dip your piece of cloth into the well water, anoint the afflicted area of your body, then hang the cloth from the tree…when the cloth rots and falls away, your affliction will go with it. (It is important to use natural cloth for this; synthetics don’t rot, and so your affliction cannot leave.)

From the Germanic Irminsul, to the Kadamba that witnessed Krishna meeting the Goat Girls, to the Oak Americans tie yellow ribbons around, the tree bears more than just branches and leaves—it bears our hopes, our wishes and our deepest respect as it is decorated and celebrated the whole world over.

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