Dreaming of a green Christmas

The ancient folk festival of tree-dressing day dates back all the way to 1990. Helen Chappell celebrates an instant tradition
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COLOURED flags flap madly overhead as the tiny figure of a man struggles to subdue them. He perches in the branches of a tree, high above the gridlocked traffic and crowded pavements of Islington Green in north London.

On the first Saturday in December there is already a bustle of glassy-eyed Christmas shoppers in the streets. But here on the traffic island-sized Green is an oasis of peace and tranquillity. A tree surgeon is fixing coloured fabric banners to the naked branches of a tree, while a handful of earnest Islington folk wearing parkas, beards and ethnic earrings have assembled below. They are here to celebrate Tree Dressing Day, a traditional folk ritual dating all the way back to... well, to 1990, as a matter of fact.

"Many of us share in the ritual of dressing a nearly dead tree in our front rooms every Christmas," says Stephen Turner of Common Ground, the conservation charity that has invented Tree Dressing Day. "So why not share a social celebration and take into the family live trees that need our care and attention?"

Set up to help save the natural world on our doorstep, rather than the rare and the wild, Common Ground has a soft spot for trees. Dressing trees is not just alternative Yuletide funk, it promotes awareness of them along with a sense of community spirit.

All over the country, citizens with green tendencies are decorating the trees growing in their own front gardens and parks, village greens and shopping malls. In Peterborough there are tree lanterns and giant puppets. In Brighton red ribbons flutter frombranches in memory of Aids victims. Outside Brixton town hall trees are festooned with giant cut-out numbers and the slogan "Every Tree Counts".

Tree Dressing Day has obviously taken off. If the Victorians could invent "instant" folk traditions (including today's version of Christmas), argues Common Ground, why can't we? But isn't it all a touch fey, even mystical, for the modern world? Russell Ball, the Islington tree officer, doesn't think so. "Some London boroughs have seen it as a bit pagan," he says, "a bit too `left brain' for their liking. But there's nothing religious about it. Seventy per cent of London boroughs now celebrate it."

He looks on indulgently as today's revellers struggle to light candles and joss sticks against the brisk December winds. The park railings are decorated with handbills containing ecologically sound poems about our leafy friends, while red-nosed passers-by have tree identification charts pressed upon them. "People in the town don't look up, above the level of the shop window" muses Russell Ball. "If they see a tree full of glitz and glamour today, perhaps they will notice it through the rest of the year."

Sitting on a bench, his gaze turned heavenwards, is a genuine passer-by. Here is one of the masses whose heartstrings Common Ground hopes to pluck, tree-wise. "It adds a new dimension to life." says Richard Lord, an Islington barrister, "Especially for someone like me who lives in a top-floor apartment. A different way to celebrate Christmas and nature as well."

For the 75 per cent of Islingtonians who lack their own gardens, he feels, every scrap of municipal greenery is a surrogate back yard. He recalls walking across the Green after the great storm of 1987 and spotting a felled tree by the war memorial. "It read: `In memory of the fallen'," he sighs. "Terribly poignant." He may not look much like a New Age traveller, but Richard confesses to a secret urge to live in a forest. They have such a powerful atmosphere. In fact, he nearly bought a wood once, but hewasn't sure what to do with it.

Sho Watt, an artist and flag maker, is watching the aerial antics of the tree surgeon with nervous interest. Those are her creations waving about up there. Each flag has been lovingly sewn by hand in bright primary colours and abstract shapes. "They can mean whatever people want them to mean," she says, "as long as they attract your attention." Festivals are her speciality at the moment - she recently made giant medieval flags for the Salisbury Festival and the "Great Outdoors" exhibition on the South Bank in London. "I didn't know anything about trees before I was asked to do this," she admits, "but it has helped me to see how important they are."

Another thing that makes Common Ground different from other green groups, according to Stephen Turner, is the fact that it works with artists like Sho Watt rather than with scientists. "Science provides vital conservation data like the fact that trees create the oxygen we need to breathe," he says. "If they die, we die. But our job is to reach the people who think with their hearts as much as their heads."

Strolling through the park are two likely candidates - Aileen Hanrahan and her small daughter, Lauren, out doing some Christmas shopping. "Lauren saw the flags first," says Aileen. "She loves climbing trees." What type of tree does she like best? Lauren ponders. "A coconut tree," she says. "Trees teach a child the changing of the seasons and the rhythm of the year," her mother says. "We've got a ballerina on top of our Christmas tree," Lauren says.

On the next park bench, a willowy youth with the melting eyes of a pop star is eating a pasta salad from a polythene box. Joseph Pipal is on his lunch break from his Saturday job in the record shop across the road. "Yeah, we decorate trees in my family'sgarden at Christmas," he says, spearing some tortellini with his fork, "but this beats the usual Christmas stuff. It's quite spectacular."

Was he aware that the Celts used to worship trees, even rumoured to have slipped in a bit of human sacrifice to keep the tree gods happy? "At least they appreciated them. They didn't hack them down or neglect them."

In fact, tree dressing has been practised for generations in countries such as Turkey and India where trees are painted with vermilion and turmeric and hung with beads. In Provence and elsewhere in the south of France, trees are garlanded with flowers and ribbons on May Day. In Cornwall, Cumbria and Scotland people tied coloured rags to "clootie" trees to attract long life and health. (Some still do).

By late afternoon in Islington, a trio of female poets is preparing to perform verses celebrating all this sort of thing. "I'm really passionate about trees," declares Margot Henderson, alias Brigit Bard, community poet. "They're linked with bardic traditions. The first words were scratched on the bark of trees."

Parminder Chadha, a poet and Asian movie singer, agrees. "They represent life and personify the divine. My poem was written when I was ill with ME. I've got a very sacred relationship with trees." According to Brigit, poets used to be the "voices of nature", so it's only right they should revive that tradition in these environmentally challenged times. "We've got to stand up and be counted," she says.

While the poets declaim their verses, the man in the tree is finally coming down to earth. Robert Buckley, the tree surgeon, winds up his rope and grabs a mug of tea. "Got to give 'em plenty of room to flap," he observes, peering up at his handiwork. "It's better than last year. They had a big bamboo bird last year."

And is he a tree lover too? Is his relationship with trees as sacred and symbolic as those of the poets, artists and New Age greens gathered here today. "I'm aware of 'em," he says. "No doubt about it. But I don't look at a tree and think `I love you'." Gaunt and gigantic behind him, the flag-waving tree looks as though it can probably rise above it.

The tree on Islington Green, London N1 can be seen until Twelfth Night. For details of dressed trees around the country, contact Common Ground, Seven Dials Warehouse, Earlham Street, London EC2H 9LA (071-379 3109/071-240 3682).