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OAK TREES have been considered sacred since pagan times, but we doubt that King Charles II kept that much in mind as he shinnied upward, fleeing for his life. The king, evading Cromwell's soldiers, took refuge in a lofty, bushy oak, perfect for camouflage. The ruse saved the king's life, and to this day a descendant of that tree is honored as the Royal Oak., its name the third most common in pub signs.
Kings don't usually go in for arbor sports, but Charles was hard pressed, fleeing to Boscobel Castle after defeat at the Battle of Worcester. His hosts cut his fashionably long hair, dressed him in rough· clothes, and propelled him upward. Here the king stayed the whole day, fortified by bread, cheese and beer.
The account has all the earmarks of an historical legend. But years later Charles related the details of his arboreal experience to the diarist Samuel Pepys, and so we have the story - including sight of a soldier under the tree as the king was "peeking from the wood." Would a diarist prevaricate?
King Charles escaped and the tree seemed to deserve celebration. In . 1660, Parliament declared May 29 Oak Apple Day, and the Royal Oak came to national attention. The tree standing today is not the original, which languished in the nineteenth century, as too many tourists snapped off souvenir leaves, twigs and bark. It has been succeeded by the Son of the Royal Oak, and, a few years ago, Prince Charles planted a sapling grown to the present Grandson of the Royal Oak. English tradition dies hard.
The "apple" referred to a gall resembling the fruit, reddish or brownish, formed on branches by larvae of hornets. In parts of England, where oak apples were known as "shick-shacks," the holiday was also known as Shick Shack Day. Celebrants wore sprigs of oak, and the royal association also resonates with the pagan tradition of tree worship. But another connection is less lofty. Although Oak Apple Day was abolished in 1859, here and there children still have their own festive ways, although the origin of the holiday has been lost to them. On May 29, they challenge each other to show their oak sprigs. Kids lacking the leafy symbols are fair game for having their bottoms pinched, and the holiday is also termed Pinch Bum Day. Children tend to have a rhyme for every occasion, and so for this peculiar arbor day they chant: "The 29th of May is Oak Apple Day. If you don't give us a holiday, we'll all run away."