A chapter on the Tree of life from the book:

Celestially Auspicious Occasions: Seasons, Cycles and Celebrations

written by Donna Hemes

By mid spring, the tantrum storms, like the terrible two’s of the early part of the season, have finally stilled. The winds and rains have gentled. There is a new calmness, a certain confidence in the air. Nature has taken hold. Once-tentative buds have unfolded and flourished. Flowers, food and forage are abundant and fragrant. Everything is that particular fluorescent pea green that we see only once a year. And all the vernal new-borns, having outgrown generations of teeth, feathers, pelts and ridiculously expensive sneakers, are now practically exploding with hormones. All-too-ready, set, to go, head out on their own. Determined to produce and reproduce.

If Candlemas signals the quickening of life, and the Spring Equinox signifies the time of birth, then May Day, the half-way point of spring, is a puberty rite of passage into adolescence. The season of exuberant youth in all its boundless energy, innocent ardor and potential creativity. The spring cross-quarter day is the growing time when life seems to shoot up out of the ground and keep on going forever. What we used to call, “the wonder years.”

The whole world is in the throes of a contagious spring fever, a delirious dance of motion, emotion. An exhilarating carnival ride of heady smells and riotous color. Life all around is gaudy, giddy, giggly. The earth and her species are spread green with the effervescent, aphrodisiac substance of life. The sap, the shoot, the root, the bud, the bark, the branch, the trunk, the tree of life.

“Spring is life. Life is trees. Trees are oxygen. They all come together in one place. Make us breathe and live… Spring is the giving of life.”

Chieu Tran Grade 6 I.S. 145

The tree of life, with its roots deep in the earth and its branches reaching upward toward heaven, out toward eternity, is the prime symbol of mid spring celebrations in many cultures. Trees have long been worshipped as beneficent spirits of bounty. Trees, after all, shade and feed us. Supply and sustain us. Serve us in endless ways. Trees breathe life into our lungs. Source of endless inspiration. Possessing potent powers of fertility, growth and longevity, trees are the progenitors of the world family tree.

You can't see the forest for the trees in world mythology. The Maasai people claim their descent to an original parent tree. The Maya of Central America understand themselves to be part of a great celestial ceiba tree. This silk-cotton tree which stands for all life is the pole at the center of the earth and serves to hold up the heavens. The Zapotec Tree of Life is a two thousand year old tree, one hundred and thirty-one feet tall and one hundred and thirty-eight feet in girth which grows in Santa Maria del Tule in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. This majestic, stately being large enough to offer shade to five hundred adults, which survived Columbus and survived the conquistadors and survived the Mexican Revolution, is now suffering the consequences of air pollution and a near-depleted ground water table. The health and prognosis of the Great Tree of Life now hangs in precarious balance.

The Koran refers to the cosmos as a tree. Yggdrasil, the World Ash is the tree goddess of the Scandinavian underworld who overreaches the human abode, touching the sky with Her branches. Her roots reach to the very center of the earth where they wind around the sacred wells which impart wisdom. The World Tree is the symbol of all relationship, and as such, is the central philosophical image for the Slavs. The Hebrew goddess, Asherah, was associated with a sacred tree. The Greek goddess Athena was symbolized by an eternally flourishing olive tree. Helen was worshipped as a tree on the Greek island of Rhodes into the nineteenth century. The Buddha was born under a tree at Lumbini, attained Enlightenment under a tree at Gaya, and entered Nirvana under a tree at Kusinagara.

“A tree grew inside my head. A tree grew in. Its roots are veins, its branches nerves, thoughts its tangled foliage.”

Octavio Paz Twentieth Century Mexican

The Bodhi Tree. The Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden. The Egyptian Tree of Life. The Tree of Knowledge. The Persian Tree Opposed to Harm. The Navaho Tree. The Iroquois Tree of Peace. The Cedar Tree of the Ghost Dance. The Witch Tree of the Ojibway. The Yoruban Universal Tree of Life. The Taoist Paradise Tree. The Celtic Tree of Paradise. The Germanic World Tree, the Heaven-pillar. The Greek Sacred Pine of Attis. The Tree of Liberty of the French Revolution. The Oaxacan Tule Tree. The Kabbalah Tree. The Cedar of Lebanon. The Christmas Tree.

Charles Darwin explains his theory of natural selection in Origin of the Species by way of an exquisitely composed metaphor based on the Tree of Life: “As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these, if vigorous, branch out and over-top on all sides many a feebler branch, so by generation, I believe it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever branching and beautiful ramifications.”

European spring cross-quarter festivities were held in honor of the trees and their mistresses, the virgin vegetation goddesses. Midspring was celebrated as Floralia by the Romans, Walpurgisnacht by the Tuetons and Beltane by the Celts. Romantic devotions for Flora, Walpurga and Maia, for whom this month is named. Maia, whose name means “grandmother, midwife or wise one,” can be traced back to Maya, the pre-vedic mistress of perceptual reality who was the virgin mother of the Buddha. The Greek goddess, Maia was the virgin mother of Hermes. Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, is patroness of the month of May which the early church dedicated to Her.

“Spring is purple jewelry; flowers on the ground, green in the forest.”

Anonymous Woman's Chant ca. Eleventh Century Latin

On May morning, young girls would go out in the pre-dawn hours to wash their faces in May dew, which was held to be fortifying as well as beautifying. Catherine of Aragon was reported to have traveled into the forest with twenty-five ladies in waiting to bathe in the May dew in 1515. Samuel Pepys notes in his diary that his wife gathered May dew in 1667, “which Mrs. Turner hath taught her is the only thing in the world to wash her face with: and I am contented with it.” Oliver Cromwell who died in 1658, is said to have partaken of May dew on medical advice. This custom survived until relatively recently in the Ozark Mountains where girls washed their face in May dew at sunrise so that they may marry the man of their desire.

At first light, the boys joined them in the forest and together they brought in the May &Mac247; small trees, branches and flowers with which to decorate the village green, streets and houses. In England, they sang in the May, adding music to their forest procession. This custom continued into the twentieth century in the practice of leaving May baskets filled with flowers and sweets and rhyming love verses at the door of one’s beloved at dusk.

The group of young folks then stripped a tall tree of its branches set it up in the village square. The top was crowned with a wreath of flowers and sometimes a female figurine as well. This is clearly a phallus encircled by a yoni. This May pole was hung with ribbons which were woven around the pole in the course of a grand-right-and-left spiral dance, intertwining the young men and women in the process; bringing them, binding them, ever closer together. In Medieval and Tudor Britain, May Day was an important public holiday, still sizzling with sexual abandonment. A similar celebration of spring fertility and copulation celebrated Holland is called Whitsuntide.

Early Midspring rites included the wearing of the green, a symbolic modeling of the earth’s verdant new garments. A sign of imitation and identification with the natural world. A loving gesture of sympathetic magic which has continued in the Irish tradition of putting on the green for St. Patrick's Day. May Day festivals which began with great public gaiety usually ended in orgiastic display of sexual licentiousness. Marriage vows were temporarily forgotten during this honey month. People coupled freely in the woods and fields, fertilizing the soil and each other. Sharing a fervent participation in the regenerative magic of the earth.

“Why should those branches not remain for ever bare, the earth for ever hard and inhospitable? By what grace did these green hopes and gentle exhalations perpetually recur? He had done nothing to deserve so munificent a resurgence.”

From The Needle's Eye Margaret Drabble Twentieth Century English

It is no wonder that the puritan Protestant fathers were deeply offended by the May pole ceremony with its not so subtle sexual connotations and pagan sensibilities. May poles were forbidden by act of parliament in 1644, which called for the removal of “Maypoles (a heathenish vanity, generally abused to superstition and wickedness), the Lords and Commons do further order and ordain, that all and singular Maypoles, that are, or shall be erected, shall be taken down and removed by the Constaples, and Church Wardens of the parishes and places where the same be; and that no Maypole shall be hereafter set up, erected, or suffered to be within this Kingdome of England or Dominion of Wales.”

They later regained favor during the Restoration. The last permanent public May pole was erected in the London Strand in 1661. It took twelve British soldiers under the personal supervision of James II to plant the 134' cedar pole in the ground. In 1717 it was removed to Wanstead Park in Essex where it was adapted by Sir Isaac Newton for use as part of the support of the largest telescope in the world. In its new job, the pole, the tree of life, serves exactly its original symbolic function - the unification of the earth and the sky.

Like all of the devotional rites dedicated to the earth goddess which they could not repress, May Day was ultimately claimed by the Church as its own. In doing so, the veneration of the may pole/may tree was left completely intact. The tree simply became the cross. Holy Cross Day is observed on May 3, in honor of Empress Helen (the selfsame who was once worshipped as a Goddess Tree). According to the Catholic version, it was she who found the true cross of Christ under the Temple of Venus(!) in 313 C.E. When the Europeans came to the Western Hemisphere, they brought with them a variety of Catholic, Puritan and peasant May Day practices. These have interfaced with mid-spring festivals of the indigenous Americans.

Holy Cross Day, as it is celebrated in Mexico and Guatemala, has a distinctly Indian aesthetic of spiritual intimacy. Wooden crosses are erected at places of new beginnings: building sites and roadways and intersections. These are hung like May poles with ribbons and decorated with flowers, flags, kerchiefs, even dresses and jewelry. In Chile, the cross is dressed on May 1 and processed through town where it stops at every home in order to bless it. It is undressed again on May 31.

“Here comes the Holy Cross “Aqui anda Santa Cruz Visiting its devotees. Visitando sus devotos. With a stump of a candle Con un cabito de vela and a sip of grape juice.” Y un traguito de mosyo.”

Traditional Chant Chile

Cruzelacu or Cruz Velakuy, is the two week mid spring nature appreciation festival celebrated throughout Latin America beginning on Holy Cross (Cruz) Day. Hawaii fêtes May 1, as Lei Day, an old flower festival stemming from before the missionary invasion of the Islands. Thousands of fresh flowers are gathered, strung and hung from the branches of trees in a springtime ceremony of harmony with nature and appreciation of its creations. In an older, less adulterated expression of the season, the people of the mountains of Guerrero, Mexico hold a pole dance. The young men lie on the ground, their legs in the air supporting a painted post the size of a telephone pole. Using their feet, they balance, spin and twirl the painted poles like potent red batons. Proudly, they wave them erect and aloft.

The Brazilian May Day celebration is a marriage between the European May pole and the West African Universal Tree of Life which, too, was transported in the slave ships. The same tree spirit was the inspiration of old the African-American spiritual, “All God's Children Got a Right to the Tree of Life.” An especially energetic tree is designated to be the ceremonial stand-in for the Tree of Life. The lower branches are dressed in ribbons. From the top flies the white flag of the Yoruban God of Time. An interesting ritual co-incident is that in Nepal, half a world away, a tree which is called, the Tree of Life is also hung with white flags at the mid point of spring.

The Liberty Tree is a common symbol among many Native North American groups. It represents the freedom of the individual to experience the divinity in nature directly. A single cedar tree which is called the World Tree stands in the center of the Ghost Dance circle. The Ghost Dance is an invented ritual born of the healing vision of one individual. In 1888, Wovoka, a Paiute medicine man, created the ceremony of the Ghost Dance to bring together many different Indian nations in a new unity. The ghost dance is an assertion of cultural identity, dignity and spiritual empowerment in the face of degradation, dispersal and death. The spring mid point is one of the nine annual Ghost Dances, each held at a gateway time of celestial power.

Jake Swamp, a member of the Mohawk nation, has carried the Liberty Tree into the 1990’s. Inspired by the Great Peace Maker who arose about a thousand years ago during a dark age of war and strife in the history of the Iroquois, he has designed a ceremony for the planting of the Tree of Peace. For several years he has been traveling throughout North America and Europe planting trees with people. The ritual includes the burying of the hatchet. An Indian tomahawk and a part from a nuclear weapon are interred at the foot of the Tree of Peace along with the anger, resentments, ill feelings and mistrust of the planters.

The closest we come to celebrating an animistic May Day in twentieth century America is Arbor Day. Once a year since 1872, on the last weekend in April, school children, scouts and park rangers plant trees in a conscious effort to green the land. It was originally promoted as a holiday by Julius Sterling Morton, a Nebraska settler and conservation advocate, who noticed that the effect of cultivating the prairies was resulting in drier soil which was blowing away. What he saw was the coming of the dust bowl. He instigated the planting of more than one million trees in barren areas during the first year.

Arbor Day can be any day, of course. You can’t have too many Arbor Days. At the turn of the nineteenth century, John Chapman, a visionary mystic set out from New England on foot to see the rest of America. As he walked, he shed his belongings until he was left with only his apple seeds, his religious text and a cooking pot which he wore on his head like a sun bonnet. Johnny Appleseed traded seed and planted trees as far west as Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. In colonial times, a bride would dig up a tree from her mother's garden and replant it in her new home. People everywhere plant trees in honor of the birth of a child which will then grow along with it, the tree and child nurturing each other in the future.

Tu Bi-Shevat, the Jewish Arbor Day, is also a relatively new observance, evolved by the Ashkenazim, East European settlers in Palestine in the seventeenth century. In addition to being the New Year for Trees, Tu Bi-Shevat celebrates the eating of the first ripe fruits of the season. It is ideal to consume four glasses of wine and fifteen different kinds of fruit - for the fifteenth day of the month on which the holiday falls. In China, trees are planted in public places during the Ching Ming, the Bright and Clear Festival. At this time, families also plant trees on the graves of the ancestors. The willow tree, especially, decorates the burial places of the dead, as it has a mystical connection with spring, and, hence rebirth.

A few years ago, I spent Arbor Day planting two hundred white pine seedlings in Prospect Park in Brooklyn with a group of about forty street-wise teenagers from East New York. (This happened to be the same day that Los Angeles was burning over the Rodney King decision.) Along with each tree, we ceremonially planted our prayers and positive intentions for the future. The wishes and hopes and plans which would nourish the planted and the planters alike. One young girl-woman remarked that even while she was thrilled to be planting baby trees, she was worried because they wouldn’t have a father. I said, “You've heard of Mother Earth.” “Yeah.” “Well, there is Father Sky.” And she perked right up, “Oh yeah, and the wind is the uncle!”

The tree supports and centers our relationship with the earth. In the tree we can see our own best selves. Standing strong. Our foundation dug in solid rock, seeking the deep source of knowledge. Our stance is solid yet supple. Flexible, our outward, upward, reach extends, bends always toward the light. We nourish and provide and shelter and heal. We, too, manufacture our sustenance from the sun. We share the very breath of life. We are the tree. The World Family Tree of Humanity. May we grow together to be the Universal Tree of Peace.

Arbol de la esperanza mantante firme.

Tree of hope keep firm.

Frida Kahlo