Are Fairy Trees a Fairy Tale?

Arbor Day: Plant a Tree!

Today is Arbor Day, a holiday where individuals and groups are encouraged to plant trees. In the United States, National Arbor Day is celebrated on the last Friday in April, although individual states may have their own celebrations. The first American Arbor Day took place on April 10, 1872 with an estimated one million trees planted! Many countries around the world have a similar holiday, although the timing varies with the climate and growing season.

Trees provide essential oxygen as well as shelter and shade for a variety of creatures (including humans!). Green space is a valuable commodity, particularly in urban settings which too often feel like a concrete jungle. So planting trees and renewing this natural resource benefits everyone!

Trees in the Celtic World

The Celts believed the world was inhabited by many spirits, and viewed nature as the physical manifestation of the Divine. The Tree of Life in particular was believed to be a path between the physical and spiritual worlds, with the roots planted in the soil and the branches reaching toward Heaven.

Hawthorn trees are sacred in Celtic culture. They are associated with Beltane (May 1) one of the four principal pagan festivals and traditionally the first day of summer in Ireland. Doors and windows outside homes were hung with hawthorn branches and a hawthorn bush was transformed into a May Bush decorated with shells and trinkets. In modern times Beltane is called May Day, celebrated by dancing around a decorated maypole and building bonfires.

Irish Fairy Trees Arbor Day Donegal Square Celtic gift shop Bethlehem PA

Hawthorn trees are also known as “fairy trees”. It is believed that fairies (or the sidhe) live underground and in certain trees, namely the hawthorn. Even in modern times, one often sees a lone tree in the middle of a field; farmers and landowners are reluctant to cut down hawthorn trees for fear of disturbing the fairies. Roadworks and motorways are often diverted around fairy trees for the same reason.

Blackthorn = Shillelagh

Closely related to the hawthorn tree is the blackthorn; both are part of the rose family. Blackthorn is depicted in many fairy tales as a tree of ill omen and is linked with warfare, wounding and death. Not surprisingly, the Irish cudgel (or shillelagh) is fashioned from a blackthorn stick. Blackthorn is a hard wood, plentiful throughout Ireland, and often has a knob on the end formed from the root of the shrub.

Blackthorn shillelagh Donegal Square a Celtic gift shop in Bethlehem, PA

Blackthorn is also used in spells of protection in Irish folklore. Heroes could be aided by the blackthorn tree; if they threw a blackthorn twig, an impenetrable hedge would form, protecting them from oncoming danger.

A more benign use of blackthorn wood is for a walking stick. A common misconception is that the walking stick is called a shillelagh; the shillelagh is in fact a club or weapon.