Tu B'shvat is colloquially referred to as "Jewish Arbor Day." Given both holidays celebrate trees, it is an understandable comparison for American Jews, but upon closer examination, they're quite different.
Both holidays have the custom of planting trees, but the history and message behind them differentiate, which is why Arbor Day typically escapes the popular mindset while Tu B'shvat is prolific among the Jewish nation. This phenomenon puzzles me, especially in our more environmentally conscious society, yet Arbor Day continues to be overlooked for minor gift-giving holidays like Sweetest Day, a holiday invented much in the way "Love Day" was invented in The Simpsons.
So I attempted to understand why Tu B'shvat succeeded where Arbor Day failed to endear in the popular mindset.
To refresh, Tu B'shvat is when the trees in Eretz Yisrael begin to bloom; it is often referred to as the "Rosh Hashanah for the Trees." It is customary to eat foods of the seven species and some host a seder over the fruit.
Tu B'shvat has its roots in the Mishnah, which states in Rosh Hashanah 1:1:
The four new years are: On the first of Nisan, the new year for the kings and for the festivals; On the first of Elul, the new year for the tithing of animals; Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Shimon say, on the first of Tishrei. On the first of Tishrei, the new year for years, for the Sabbatical years and for the Jubilee years and for the planting and for the vegetables. On the first of Shevat, the new year for the trees according to the words of the House of Shammai; The House of Hillel says, on the fifteenth thereof.
The Talmud in Rosh Hashanah 2a states:
On the first of Shevat is the New Year for the tree; the fruit of a tree that was formed prior to that date belong to the previous tithe year and cannot be tithed together with fruit that was formed after that date; this ruling is in accordance with the statement of Beit Shammai. But Beit Hillel says: The New Year for trees is on the fifteenth of Shevat.
Over the centuries, the holiday has evolved and developed with the establishment of the State of Israel and implementation of afforestation programs. Additionally, the emergence of the environmentalist movement across the globe provided another means of expression for the holiday in the Diaspora, especially in the United States.
Arbor Day is the international day when it is customary to plant a tree and appreciate nature. It began on April 10, 1872 in Nebraska City, Nebraska where a million trees were planted; it was then published by a Nebraska newspaper editor (and future U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and Nebraska governor) J. Sterling Morton.
Within a decade, the event began promotion in schools. Then in 1883, Birdsley Northrop delivered a speech in Japan about Arbor Day, and through the American Forestry Association, Arbor Day began being promoted nationwide and internationally. In 1907, President Roosevelt delivered his "Arbor Day Proclamation to School Children of the United States" after being urged by Pennsylvania conservationist Maj. Israel McCreight and Chief of the U.S. Forestry Services Gifford Pinchot, which cemented Arbor Day in the United States.
In the decades since, however, Arbor Day has fallen to the wayside in America much in the same way the environmentalist movement did during the '70 and the Captain Planet era.
Learning the backstories of the two holidays, I was reminded of the blessings we say over various foods before we eat them. Blessings harken back to the concept that all things in this world are neutral, and it is our choice to either make them holy or not through our usage of the item. Among these methods are either saying a blessing before eating food or not, or dedicating an item for a mitzvah or for idolatrous purposes.
On Tu B'shvat, we are imbuing the planting of trees with holiness by beautifying creation or later using that tree for holy purposes. Arbor Day, by contrast, is simply about celebrating trees for the sake of their importance in our lives or because they are great (insert Captain Planet message here).
It all comes down to purpose and execution. Although both have noble intentions and potential for mitzvot, Arbor Day falls short by celebrating trees for being trees, in contrast to Tu B'shvat, which despite borrowing that same intent to plant trees, imbues itself with ritual and sacredness, thereby standing out proudly on the Jewish calendar.
We could all learn from the example of Tu B'shvat. Through choice and action, ordinary holidays can evolve into something more than a Charlie Brown episode or Ferngully PSA. We can add value and holiness to the celebration.