Arbor Day, ShropshireDecorating trees, and celebrations centred on them, was probably once common in Britain, but this merry-making tradition took a body-blow during the Commonwealth, when Cromwell and his Puritan friends banned dancing, carousing and just about anything else that looked enjoyable. When Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, entering London on his birthday May 29, in part as a swipe at the Puritans he declared a new holiday, Oak Apple Day as it became known because of his concealment in a tree after the battle of Worcester , and it may be that Arbor Day in Aston-on-Clun is a survival of that celebration, though some would place it far further back in time.
On the last Sunday in May the people of Aston-on-Clun decorate a specific tree in the centre of their village. Until 1999 this was a venerable black poplar, said to be more than 300 years old, but that blew down and was replaced with a sapling grown from it 20 years previously. They use brightly coloured flags which are left on the tree all year, until the following year’s flags refresh it once more.
Although it is easy to read fertility symbolism into this ceremony, it is thought to belong to the Stuart era rather than earlier, though some of those involved in organising the event claim its heritage goes back to the Iron Age and the worship of the Celtic goddess Brigit. What is far more likely to be true is the tale that has in 1786 local squire John Marston arriving in the village with his new bride Mary Carter of Sibdon Castle just as the tree was being decorated. There are several variants on the tale: one would have it that the decoration had been planned to coincide with their arrival, another that the bride took it for granted that it had been done in her honour. Either way, she was overjoyed by the sight, and rewarded those involved.
These days a fete and children’s pageant take place on Arbor Day in Aston, with Morris dancing, folk music and other entertainments laid on for the many visitors who come from all over the country to see the now unique event. But the tree remains at centre stage, as is fitting.
More British Folk Customs?