Totem of the Beach Clan: The Secret Revealed

The story begins with dogs walking on the beach in St. Simons Island, Georgia. And because there are nothing but happy dogs at the beach, they want to meet other happy dogs.

The dogs become friends, the owners meet day after day, and they become friends. It’s a group of these early morning dog-walkers who is responsible for the creatively, and whimsically decorated driftwood tree of East Beach.

IMG_2125 - Version 3

We’ve written a number of posts about this fun tree, which is decorated for holidays throughout the year. We had no idea who was responsible, but in their honor, we named it “The Totem of the Beach Clan.” Well thanks to our well-informed, north-island buddy Dianne, we now know the real story.

St Pats Tree

An article in the March 20, 2013 edition of the Coastal Illustrated magazine solves the mystery. According to the article, the two-legged friends saw a tree bobbing in the surf, and being concerned about safety for boaters, they pulled the tree ashore. Almost immediately, decorations started showing up on the tree.

Italian Tree The unofficial ring leader of the group, Jenifer Whiddon, came up with the idea to decorate the tree for Christmas. The group decided to un-decorate the tree after the Christmas holiday, and soon, it became a tree for all holidays. Now it’s decorated for Valentines Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Christmas, Fourth of July, and many occasions in between.

This fun tree has become one of the most photographed spots on the island. In fact, the Seattle Times included it among its “12 Christmas Trees of the World.” Not bad for a piece of driftwood dragged from the surf.


Unfortunately, in 2012 seventy year-old Jenifer Whiddon passed away. Her friends (and her dogs) miss her, but the Totem and her memory lives on at East Beach.

Happy Trails,
JamesChristmas Totem


We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at

50 thoughts

    1. Thanks Liz. This is our second experience of living at the beach. And it’s very interesting that in both places there have been some pretty interesting characters and stories. The saying here is: “I’m on island time.”~James

      1. No, we haven’t been to Bald Head Island, but we’ve spent time in an around Wilmington. I checked it out online and it looks neat. It should be quiet and restful this time of year. We enjoy that area, but it gets a bit too cold for cold-weather wimps like me. Have a great time. ~James

      1. I concur that the beach breeds happiness. Should anyone be grumpy on the beach they should be shipped to the frozen north. 🙂 I will add that over the Christmas holidays there was a pine tree decorated much like your driftwood on our river path. We never found out who was the organizer but will be on the watch next year!

    1. Thanks for the comment and for dropping by the blog. We thought that the driftwood tree was very cool, and finding out the whole story makes it even better. It’s located on an obscure part of the beach, but somehow the word gets out, and there are lots of visitors. ~James

  1. Love that. It’s something that could be replicated elsewhere. In fact we have a large branch in our hall. When first put there to add interest (we have a large high hall as we stay in a former country church) the idea was to change its decorations according to seasons and celebrations, but I became caught up in other things, so the decorations don’t change so often. But it’s an idea that children would love and could keep them occupied on rainy days.

    1. Thanks Dorothy. Living in a former country church; you have my curiosity up. That must have some lovely, open spaces. We’ve always wanted to renovate an old warehouse, but somehow, have never gotten around to it. The driftwood tree is a wonderful thing, but we don’t know who decorates/undecorates it and when. Like most things, I’m sure that it takes more effort than is obvious. And I’m sure that decorating a nice branch of driftwood would be a great project for bored young ones. ~James

    1. Somehow it sounds very appealing to know that after I kick the bucket, my name will be on a laminated card, attached to an interesting piece of driftwood, flapping in the breeze on a beach somewhere. ~James

    1. Thanks for the comment and for dropping by the blog Judy. I jogged on the beach this morning, and can report that the tree is already decorated for Valentine’s Day. ~James


    Hi James and Terri: you are so good in discovering interesting things that few people are aware of. I read your previous post on totem pole back in Feb 2013. Then I went to Yunnan and saw some totem poles there. I wrote a post on this topic in May but forgot about yours till now. Both of your posts are so special that i couldn’t help reading them again and again and mine as well. I did not know Taiwan has totem poles too. Now I believe in every parts of the world where there are natives inhabitants, there are totem poles. I am still puzzled that how come they live in different part of the world but the idea of creating those totem poles are relatively similar!

    Your post has aspired me to explore more on this topic.

    1. Thanks for the link to your post Denise. I’ve been to China a few times, and have never seen totems. It is interesting how the art form seems to cross cultures as well as time around the world. I don’t know, but it could be as simple as the availability of trees around the world. In North America, the largest totems are in the Pacific NW, up the west coast of Canada, and into Alaska. All of these places have an abundance of trees. If you find a good answer in your research, let me know. Thanks. ~James

    1. I agree Bronwyn. It’s interesting that the catalyst for the tree and friendships were the dogs. I jog on the beach frequently, and people are friendly, and always smile and say hello. But rarely, do strangers walk up and start a conversation, unless there’s something special going on. Basic human nature I guess, but interesting to observe. ~James

  3. Love the ways people find to amuse themselves, James. There is a tree on the way to the Big Foot Trap in our area that people have decorated with Xmas tree ornaments. (Is Big Foot responsible? And no, one has never been caught in the trap but they did catch a couple of bears.) –Curt

    1. If I follow this line of logic Curt, this means that Big Foot doesn’t like Christmas ornaments, and bears do. You need to publish this info. It must be useful to someone. ~James

    1. Thanks for the comment Jennifer and for dropping by the blog. I’ve looked at the totem many times, and the constant changing memorials are interesting. Someone takes care of the tree, because the memorials come and go at regular intervals. I hope you’re having a great time on SSI. ~James

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