Unsung Holidays: Arbor Day

April 27, 2023

Celebrations, holidays, traditions. Many memories attach themselves to special moments outside the daily rhythms of ordinary life. Often connected with food, smells, stories, and participation, how and what do you pause to celebrate? Maybe some of these “Unsung Holidays” will inspire you to gather people, create a new memory, and celebrate a beauty within God’s world.

If you’ve ever taken a road trip across the United States, you may have noticed something the farther west you traveled: a wide-open sky almost unobstructed by trees. Or, if you noticed any trees at all, you might have noted that they are much younger than the ones in the eastern United States. Many of the oldest trees you come across in Nebraska were planted in the late 1800s as part of an initiative to create wind blocks and other tree-filled areas in an otherwise treeless territory.

Arbor Day began as an idea proposed by J. Sterling Morton, editor of the Nebraska City News newspaper and resident of Nebraska City, Nebraska. Morton loved trees, and it was important to him that people plant more of them. In 1872, he brought the idea of a tree planting holiday to the State Board of Agriculture, and on April 10 of the same year, over a million trees were planted to celebrate the first Arbor Day1.

In 1874, Nebraska Governor Robert W. Furnas proclaimed an Arbor Day observance for April 10, and by 1885 Arbor Day became a state holiday to be observed every year on April 22, J. Sterling Morton’s birthday.2

Fourth graders in Nebraska take a special unit on Nebraska history in school. In my area, students participate in the mission of Arbor Day by planting trees. A local initiative in my community paired a celebration of Arbor Day with an Earth Day event. There, people were invited to bring disposable, plastic grocery sacks for recycling. In exchange, participants received a reusable shopping bag and a tree sapling to plant. 

As I researched about the various ways Arbor Day is celebrated around the United States, I learned that in the 1940s, groups planted trees for servicemen. More recently, communities have promoted tree-planting campaigns to help replace trees lost to disease, such as Dutch Elm disease. 

A friend of mine shared that the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois once offered free admission to anyone who came dressed like a tree on Arbor Day. When she shared this story, I became curious about the namesake of the Arboretum. It turns out, J. Sterling Morton’s oldest son Joy moved west to Lisle, Illinois, founded the Morton Salt Company, and established the Morton Arboretum as a continuation of the Morton family motto “Plant Trees”3.

Arbor Day may be an unsung holiday in many ways, but it remains an opportunity to think about our relationship to the natural world. In schools, teachers have the opportunity to encourage their students to care for the world they live in by promoting Arbor Day events, like poster contests and tree-planting projects. Whether you live in an area abounding with trees, or you live in an area with sparse vegetation, Arbor Day is an opportunity to learn about the trees in your area and what makes them unique and important.

In my area, harsh temperature swings and unpredictable weather is hard on trees. Arbor Day is an opportunity for groups to research which trees thrive in this environment and to be intentional about planting to replace the ones that didn’t survive the winter. For Christians, Arbor Day is an invitation to remember God’s call on all human beings to “till and keep” the earth (Genesis 2:15). Even if we live in a place where we cannot plant trees, we can still take some time to enjoy the trees in our area and to be grateful for those who took care to plant these trees before us. 

This Arbor Day, take some time to learn about any Arbor Day opportunities in your area. Plant trees, or simply enjoy the trees in your neighborhood. Touch a tree, or pick up a fallen leaf, and give thanks to the One who made such a wide variety of beautiful trees to delight our senses. As Dr. Seuss once wrote in The Lorax, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, / Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” 

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, / Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” 

Dr. Seuss

Arbor Day shows us what happens when someone cares about something enough to take action. In the Arbor Day Foundation’s 50 years of work, an estimated 500 million trees have been planted4. Arbor Day began with a love for trees, and that love continues to grow, spread, and ripple out beyond Nebraska. What will you do for Arbor Day this year?

About the Author
  • April Fiet is a mom of two school-age kids and a co-pastor alongside her husband, Jeff, at the First Presbyterian Church of Scottsbluff, Nebraska.

  1. https://www.arborday.org/celebrate/history.cfm  

  2. Many states now observe Arbor Day on the last Friday in April https://www.arborday.org/celebrate/history.cfm

  3. https://mortonarb.org/about-arboretum/history/ 

  4. https://www.constellationenergy.com/newsroom/2022/Constellation-Joins-Forces-with-the-Arbor-Day-Foundation-to-Reach-Goal-of-10000-Trees-Planted-Nationwide.html#:~:text=About%20the%20Arbor%20Day%20Foundation&text=Over%20the%20past%2050%20years,and%20forests%20throughout%20the%20world 

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