More Than Just Another Pretty Frond
rode that colt into
“The very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and strewed them on the road,” St. Matthew tells us in Chapter 21. “The crowds preceding him and those following kept crying out and saying: ‘Hosanna to the Son of David; blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; hosanna in the highest.’”
Ever since the fourth century,
when Christians in the
Today, in some parts of
But it’s not so much the saint’s
choice of flora the Swiss are emulating. It’s his willingness to improvise.
Because real palms weren’t obtainable in many European regions, centuries ago
Catholics christened native plants as “palms” for the occasion. That’s why they
call the day “Olive Sunday” in
The traditional “palms” of choice
in many central European countries, especially the Slavic ones, are still pussy
willows with their catkin blossoms. In centuries past, these pussy willow
branches were beautified with fresh raspberry blossoms, dry flowers, ribbons
and other adornments. Some areas of
Of course, blessed branches of any kind can recall the triumphant tone of that first Palm Sunday. In his substantial work The Liturgical Year, 19th-entury Abbot Dom Gueranger tells that, for the Jews, to raise high a palm branch was to signify a joyful occasion. The symbolism, he explains, comes straight out of the Bible, where God commands his people to use branches as part of the feast of booths:
“On the first day you shall gather foliage from majestic trees, branches of palms and boughs of myrtles and of valley poplars, and then for a week you shall make merry before the Lord, your God” (Leviticus 23:40).
Meanwhile the Catholic Encyclopedia points out: “It was also a custom in all lands to cover, in some way, the path of someone thought worthy of the highest honor.”
So it was that Christians came to claim palms as signs of victory over the world and the flesh — and to associate the foliage with the martyrs.
While branchlike symbols are universal
From across continental
While many people form their palms into crosses, many others — Mexicans, Italians, Filipinos — often weave them into elaborate designs and conical shapes.
In other places, small palm
crosses were pinned on clothing. Come to think of it, this is common today
right here in
And why not? In The Easter Book (Firefly Press, 1999), Jesuit Father Francis Weiser suggests that the weaving and shaping of palms may have even started with bishops.
Some families wear the small cross made of palms during all Holy Week, notes Franciscan Father Bernward Stokes in his 1955 book How to Make Your House a Home: Family Liturgy and Religious Practices. “This,” he writes, “represents the fact that if we wish to be victorious with Christ, we must carry our cross in patience with him.”
Whatever the design, the palms go home with us as a blessed sacramental. For generations they were preserved in prominent places in houses (to bless the occupants and guests), barns (to bless the animals) and fields (to bless the crops).
There was even a cross-continental
custom of throwing palms into a fire in the fireplace during frightening
‘From Our God’
Even a big city can adapt a
special custom with the palm branches. According to folkloreproject.org, some
“You go to their house with a piece of palm,” the website quotes one Tina Agresta as saying, “and it’s forgotten.”
In countless places, families visit graves of relatives to leave sprigs or sprays of palms, sometimes blessed, sometimes florist-made crosses or designs.
The custom comes from
However we choose to use them — mimicking the customs of peoples in other times and places, or coming up with new traditions of our own — Palm Sunday palms can help us respond to the universal call to holiness.
In every case, they should be both a somber reminder of the price Christ paid for our sins on the cross — and a joyful symbol of his victory over death in the tomb that could not hold him.
“After this I had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation comes from our God, who is seated on the throne, and from the Lamb’” (Revelation 7:9-10).
A hearty Palm Sunday “Amen” to that.
Joseph Pronechen writes from