Arbor Day vs. Earth Day: Decoding These Two April Environmental Holidays

Earth Day isn't the only environmental holiday in April.

Eva Hagan - Author

Apr. 22 2024, Published 1:09 p.m. ET

A person carrying a shovel puts a potted tree down in the forest with the sun peaking through in the back.
Source: iStock

Both Arbor Day and Earth Day are environmental holidays that both fall around the same time every year, leading many to wonder what exactly differentiates these two holidays.

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As you can probably guess by the name, Arbor Day is meant to be a celebration of trees, and a holiday meant to inspire people to plant more trees in their community. Earth Day, on the other hand, takes the focus to the entire planet, and has become an annual call to action for the climate crisis.

Both are celebrated in April, but they still are separate celebrations with unique histories, with Arbor Day actually predating Earth Day. Let's take a closer look at Arbor Day and Earth Day.

A person plants a small tree in a patch of moss.
Source: iStock
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Arbor Day aims to "inspire people to plant, nurture, and celebrate trees."

According to the Arbor Day Foundation, Arbor Day is celebrated on the last Friday in April each year (meaning it's on Friday, April 26 in 2024) and is a day to plant and appreciate trees for all they provide us with. The idea of Arbor Day came from former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture J. Sterling Morton.

Morton founded Arbor Day to bring awareness to the tree's crucial role in both human and environmental health. He believed instituting a day for planting trees would provide lasting benefits, especially in areas that were already dealing with deforestation and limited tree coverage.

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The first Arbor Day was celebrated on April 10, 1872, in Nebraska, and it’s estimated that over 1 million trees were planted that day. Arbor Day became a legal state holiday in Nebraska in 1875, and by 1920 it had become a celebration in 45 U.S. states. Since then, it has become a tradition for all 50 states.

On Arbor Day each year, communities across the U.S. hold tree-planting events. Arbor Day and other similar tree-planting holidays are also celebrated in various countries during other times of year.

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Earth Day is an annual call to fight climate change and protect the public, and it originally began as a protest.

Earth Day, on the other hand, widens the scope of appreciation from just trees to the whole Earth. However, the first Earth Day wasn’t celebrated until almost a century after the first Arbor Day. When environmental activism started to get underway in the 1960s, Wisconsin's Sen. Gaylord Nelson and Harvard graduate student Denis Hayes teamed together to create a day dedicated to the environment.

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They decided on April 22, 1970 for the inaugural Earth Day, and the first official Earth Day was observed all around the U.S., with mass protests and teach-ins. With an estimated 20 million people, the inaugural Earth Day event is credited to have inspired the modern environmental movement, as well as led to a significant increase in support for both the Clean Air Act and the creation of the Endangered Species Act.

Climate protesters hold up signs and yell through a megaphone on a city street.
Source: iStock

Since the first Earth Day in 1970, the planet has changed a lot, and environmental activism has only grown. Although the idea was always to gather together to recognize ways we could make changes for the planet, the effects of climate change have become much worse in the past few decades, leading to an even greater need for continued climate activism.

So, how will you be observing Arbor Day and Earth Day this year?

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