Did you know that unicorns like ash trees? That the locust tree represents strength and the will to live? That planting a juniper by the front door is said to protect the home from thieves? What magical gifts do the trees in your neighborhood offer?
Gifts from the Trees is a ritual I created from myths, legends, and facts surrounding trees. It’s a good ritual for fairy– or woodland-themed weddings, milestone birthdays, retirement celebrations, or croning ceremonies.
The inspiration for this ritual came from the love story I wrote for one of the couples I married: Laurie and Alan. During the wedding ceremony. I talked about how Laurie had grown up in Maine, surrounded by dense forest, how she and her sisters loved to run in the woods, play in a tree-house, swing from a rope, listen to the birds. I talked about how Laurie’s sense of identity entwined with the earth, the seasons, the cycles of nature, and about how she not only enjoyed, but needed, to spend time alone, especially in the woods.
Then the story turned to Alan. I talked about his own love of the outdoors, and about how anyone who has watched the Nature Channel knows that male birds will often build a nest and use it to attract a mate. Alan had bought a house. It sat in a quiet, rural part of Connecticut – so rural, it bordered a state forest. He and Laurie met at Hartford Hospital where they both worked. They played together on the hospital’s softball team. He hoped that what began as friendship would lead to something more. He invited her out for dinner and asked if she’d like to see his house first. She said yes. Immediately, he worried that she’d find it too remote.
Well, you can see where the story is going. In fact, when the time came, Alan proposed while they were on a hike in the woods. I reminded the guests that in fairy tales, the hero is always transformed when he or she enters the forest. I said that the forest offers special gifts to those who see it as a sacred place.
The idea behind this ritual was to create a symbolic forest. Think about it. When a couple gets married, they’re definitely transformed!
The logistics of this ritual are similar to those used in Garden Gifts, a ritual about the magical properties of herbs and spices. You can find that ritual in Episode 5 of the podcast. For the tree ritual, here’s what I assembled in advance:
- 7 cross-sections of wood, each about an inch thick
- 7 candles. I used hollowed birch logs with glass-enclosed votives.
- 2 propane fire wands, one for the ritual and one as a back-up
- A table big enough to hold the candles and the cross-sections of wood if we weren’t able to place them on the ground. You could also use assorted barrels or overturned crates.
The wedding was held at the Golden Lamb Buttery in Brooklyn, CT. The weather was perfect so the ceremony was held outside in a meadow. Prior to the ceremony, I used acorns and bits of wood to mark 7 spots on an imaginary circle on the ground, a short distance from where the couple stood.
As with the ritual “Garden Gifts,” I met with each gift bearer prior to the ceremony and gave each one the appropriate cross-section of wood – and a little card that showed the order in which I would call for the gifts.
Let me set the scene. It’s mid-September, a Sunday afternoon in rural Connecticut. There’s a welcoming farmhouse and barn right out of a Normal Rockwell painting. Fat sheep and sleek horses dot nearby pastures. Next to the farmhouse is a meadow, bordered by an old stone wall. Near the wall stands a giant old tree. I’m standing under the tree with the bride and groom, members of the wedding party, and three little flower girls. The girls want to stay up close and watch. The couple doesn’t mind at all.
During the ceremony, I introduce the ritual by talking about how wedding gifts have changed over the years. I talk about the special gifts that will be given to Laurie and Alan now.
I call for the gifts one at a time. Each presenter comes forward, holding the cross-section of wood, and stands facing the guests while I read the magical meaning of the tree.
Then I light one of the white birch candles, give it to the presenter who walks over to the designated area and places the wood on the ground and tops it with the candle. The presenter goes back to his seat. The candles stay lit throughout the ceremony.
In case you’re wondering, no, you don’t have to work with seven trees. This ritual works well with four trees (4 is the number associated with stability). Or five trees (5 is the number associated with change). Or six trees (6 is the number that suggests pleasure coming from the past). What about seven? That’s for luck. From the view of our ancestors, seven significant lights ruled the sky: Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. These lights appeared to move across the sky were called “planets,” meaning “the walkers.” To our ancestors, the seven lights were seven forms of divinity. To ensure good fortune, a person would make offerings to all seven lights. To be lucky was to have the favor of all seven.
Laurie and Alan used seven trees and took great care in determining who would present each one. As you listen to the magic of each tree, think about who in your life best represents that tree – or who in your life needs the magic of that tree. In no particular order, here are the gifts of an assortment of trees, the ones Laurie and Alan used and some others:
ILLUMINATION – gift of the HICKORY
Not only is Hickory an excellent hardwood, it’s also valued for the brightness of its flame. Some say the light of a hickory fire will bring inner illumination. Because it burns with very little smoke, Hickory is also a choice wood for those operating stills.
STRENGTH – gift of the LOCUST
Among the strongest, toughest trees on Earth, the Locust tree can withstand heat and pollution. While the crooked growth of the locust usually makes it unsuitable for lumber, shipbuilders of old used nails made of locust … because on contact with water the nails would swell and become hard as iron. Locust represents strength and the will to live. And its fragrant flowers draw honeybees.
FRIENDSHIP – gift of the WHITE BIRCH
If you study a grove of white birch, you’ll see they’re joined at the roots. White birch represents communication, good allies, like-minded people who are devoted through friendship.
FORGIVENESS – gift of the BLACK BIRCH
Like the white birch, a grove of black birch will show union, with trees joined at the roots. Where the white birch represents communication with others, the black birch represents our ability to look within, to reconcile our own thoughts, to both give and receive unconditional love.
SENSITIVITY – gift of the ASH
Ash is believed to be sensitive to the vibrations of earth and all her creatures. The ash brings insight to problems in a soothing way and teaches us a mature understanding of emotions. Rumor has it that unicorns are fond of ash. To catch a glimpse of a unicorn, carry a piece of ash in your pocket or sleep with the leaves on your chest.
SWEETNESS OF LIFE – gift of the MAPLE
Here in New England, we think maple and we think syrup. High in calcium and iron, the syrup has nutritional value. Native Americans view the maple as a tree that loves company. It represents family and those who enjoy helping their families
PROTECTION from Thieves – gift of the JUNIPER
In ancient Egypt, Juniper was burned as protection against leprosy and the plague. German folktales claim that a house with a Juniper planted by the front door will protect the home from thieves.
WEATHER MAGIC – gift of the ALDER
Though Alders thrive near streams they are water-resistant and often used as pilings – particularly in Amsterdam and Venice. Mature branches are used as divining rods, sometimes called “wishing” rods. Young, green branches of Alder can be easily hollowed and turned into whistles said to have the power to summon the four winds.
HARMONY – gift of the DOGWOOD
The Cherokee believed that among the dogwoods lived “little people” whose purpose was to teach us how to live in harmony. Because of its medicinal properties, Dogwood is used in cradles to protect babies.
LONGEVITY – gift of the MIGHTY OAK
Strong, enduring, generous with its acorns, the oak represents prosperity, strength, and longevity. The last to shed its leaves in the fall, the oak endures. Struck by lightning, the oak often survives. Centuries ago, and yesterday, people whispered, “Faerie folks are in Old Oaks.” Carry an acorn and know you are part of a magical legacy.
EMPATHY – gift of the ELM
With V-shaped twin trunks, the Elm grows into the graceful, chalice shape that makes it associated with the Goddess and her chalice of renewal. The shape of the trunk has been compared to Gothic arches and a symbolic doorway to the afterlife. Part of the chariot found in the tomb of King Tutankhamen was made of elm. Medicinally, the Elm has been used for kidney problems. In the metaphysical world, kidneys store what we fear. It’s no wonder the energy of the Elm is said to be dark. Yet, it is precisely that link to fear and death that links the Elm to empathy.
Finally, LOVE – gift of the APPLE
Apples are hardy. Archeologists have evidence of apples as far back as the Stone Age. Compared to many trees, the Apple is small – and considerate of other trees. Its branches and leaves don’t block all the sunlight, leaving plenty for other plants. It’s a welcoming tree, providing a home for the birds. The Apple is also a generous tree, with fruit that’s easily accessible. The Apple is a healing tree. Used in cider, teas, and vinegars, the apple’s medicinal properties are legendary. Apple blossom honey is one of the healthiest available. Eating an apple is one of life’s true pleasures.
Simple Ritual for Love
Gifts from the Trees is a substantial ritual to create. It requires time, space, and resources. Here’s a simple ritual. It’s good as part of a daily practice. And it’s really good if you’re looking for love.
Simply cut an apple in half horizontally. Notice how the seeds form the five-pointed star of Venus, Goddess of Love. Now, affirm your intent to be like the apple tree — considerate, generous, accessible. Commit to doing all you can do to take care of yourself and to help others on their journey.
Then eat the apple!
Why is that a ritual? Because ritual is simply a visible act, performed with invisible intent.
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Planting a Tree
Have you ever planted a tree? One of the couples I married incorporated a tree ritual into their wedding ceremony. Since they didn’t yet own a home where they could plant a tree, they chose a potted tree, a braided fig about 4 feet tall. With the right care, it would be fine on their apartment patio for a year or two until they settled down. The planting aspect of the wedding ritual was symbolic. The bride and groom each had a small container of soil from their childhood homes. Carefully, each poured the soil onto the pot holding the tree, while I said something about what each had learned about love while growing up and about what each envisioned for their shared future.
My friend and fellow Life-Cycle Celebrant Genevieve Munoz of MN Northshore Weddings does a similar ritual. Instead of having the couple add soil, she has them each pour water onto a potted evergreen. She told me that one particular couple had been together for seven years. Fortunately, the challenges they faced in those years always strengthened their love for each other and encouraged them to dream of a brighter future. Here’s what Genevieve said during their ceremony, shared here with her permission:
“Marriage creates, from two committed spirits, one beautiful tree of life. Its roots are the trust and devotion that underlie each action, thought and motive. Its branches are experience shared, hopes realized, and dreams pursued.” At this point, the couple poured the water and Genevieve said, “May your love grow like this evergreen tree, sending roots deep and branches high, strengthening with every season, and nurturing new life in all of your years.”
Genevieve and I are graduates of the Celebrant Foundation & Institute where we both received training in the history and structure of ritual, particularly weddings. On their website, CelebrantInstitute.org, you’ll find a section about ceremonies, and a particular section called Treebutes and Nature Based Ceremonies. These ceremonies were created to support individuals, groups, cities and municipalities all over the world who realize the vital role trees play in our lives. You’ll also find information about Certified Life-Cycle Celebrants in your area.
I would never encourage someone to cut off a tree limb, much less cut down a whole tree to create this ritual. Instead, find an arborist. Talk with him or her about their next job. Ask if you can purchase a cross-section of the various trees being harvested. The pieces can be the size of a dinner plate or the size of a saucer. It doesn’t matter. Just be sure you ask the arborist to identify the various pieces of wood!
If the arborist can’t provide cross-sections of wood, ask for a few twigs. Again, be sure you can identify them. In a wedding ritual, have the presenters carry a twig and place it in a vase.
The simplest way to do this ritual is to download photographs of the trees you want. Your intent is the most powerful ingredient in any ritual.
At the end of the ritual, I invite the couple to burn one of the cross-sections on upcoming anniversaries. I’m creating this ritual for a couple this summer. They’re going to incorporate the wood with their guest book.
Tree rituals are not limited to weddings. Planting a tree is often part of a baby blessing. Planting a tree can be part of a memorial service, too.
In June of 2006, I was at the annual, week-long conference of the International Women’s Writing Guild. It had been a year since the women, hundreds of them, had gathered from all over the world. In that time, the Guild had lost two key members and had made arrangements to have a tree planted in their honor on the college grounds where the conference was held. The night before I left for the conference, I got a phone call from a member of the Guild. The person who was to conduct a memorial service had food poisoning. The caller knew I had been studying ritual for the last few years. She also knew I had never performed a public ritual. Would I step in? I said yes, and my life changed forever.
The college groundskeepers had already dug a hole, set the tree, and covered the root ball with enough soil to hold it in place. They would complete the planting immediately after our ceremony. For the portion of the ceremony that related to the tree, I invited those women who had been life-long friends with the deceased to join me and to scoop dirt from a bucket into the hole. As they did, I read alternating lines honoring Jean and Ann, the two women who had died. It went like this:
Now and forever, you represent Jean to us. May your roots expand in friendship.
Now and forever, you represent Ann to us. May your trunk rise in strength.
Now and forever, you represent Jean to us. May your branches sway with grace.
Now and forever, you represent Ann to us. May your leaves dance with the seasons.
Now and forever, you represent Jean to us. May you grow in joy.
Now and forever, you represent Ann to us. May you grow in wisdom.
Now and forever, you represent Jean to us. May we feel at peace beneath your shade.
Now and forever, you represent Ann to us. May we feel at peace beneath your shade.
There were about 40 women at this early-morning service. In the closing moments, those who chose to do so, added a scoop of dirt. Others chose to write messages on construction paper fairies I had provided and hang them on the little tree.
The idea of hanging a message on a tree is very old. In the British Isles, certain trees were said to have healing power. A person who wished to be healed would first have to make an offering to the tree by tying a piece of cloth to a branch. Doing so also symbolized the laying down of a burden, trusting in the tree’s ability to reach both the gods through the branches and the ancestors through the roots. As Christianity spread throughout the land and the “old ways” were condemned, a tree that had been so “bedazzled” with what probably looked like rags was called a “clootie tree.” The word “clootie” meant the devil. I don’t know if our slang word “cootie,” originating during WWI and meaning body lice, came from “clootie” but I wouldn’t be surprised.
In 1913, Joyce Kilmer’s poem “Trees” was published in a poetry journal. You know the poem. It begins: “I think that I shall never see A poem as lovely as a tree…” Kilmer was sent to France in WWI. He was killed in 1918. He was 31. I’ve often wondered if there was a particular tree, or grove, that inspired him. In its own way, Kilmer’s poem is a memory keeper, just as all trees are.
If the ritual, Gifts from the Trees, resonates with you, you know on some level that trees are memory keepers. We’ve all seen a heart with initials carved into the bark of a tree. And I hope you’ve seen the television commercial for the Subaru Outback, the commercial with the parents taking their ‘tween-aged daughter and her hippy grandmother back to Woodstock. The widowed grandmother wants to visit the massive, old tree where she met the man she would later marry. When the granddaughter hears the story, her eyes shine with love, and she hugs the tree…as though hugging her grandfather. I’ve watched that commercial countless times and always get choked up. I think about the memories the grandmother has of her late husband. I think of the memories the granddaughter will have when she’s all grown up and falls in love. Surely it will be with someone who loves trees.
In gathering material for this podcast, I thought about the willow and elm trees in the yard of my childhood home. I remember the night a hurricane ripped the giant willow right out of the ground and tossed it on its side. That willow grew within a few feet of our house. I remembered the summer my little sister Eileen planted a horseshoe under the elm, believing it would sprout a pony. What kind of trees did you grow up with? What memories have they kept for you?
The tag line for Ritual Recipes is “a podcast full of practical magic to nourish your inner life.” That’s what this ritual, Gifts from the Trees, is all about. My hope is that, even if you never perform this ritual, you’ll always look at trees with new eyes. You’ll see and appreciate their gifts. Who knows? Next time you hug a tree, you might feel the tree hug back!
If you have a special tree, a special memory of a tree, or a favorite fantasy tree (as in the movie, Avatar), please tell me about it! I’d be honored to share your thoughts in a future episode of Ritual Recipes. You can email a voice memo, a photo, or note to me at: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
Finally, here are some resources you might find helpful.
- A Compendium of Herbal Magick by Paul Beyerl
- Whispers from the Woods: The Lore & Magic of Trees by Sandra Kynes
- Life-Cycle Celebrant Genevieve Munoz of MN Northshore Weddings
- Celebrant Foundation & Institute
- International Women’s Writing Guild