More Than Just Another Pretty Frond

When Jesus rode that colt into Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday, it must have seemed as if the entire world had turned out to see him. Even the spare Gospel accounts convey the scope and fervor of the scene.

“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 Roman Empire could worship freely at last, this event has been celebrated with palms and processions. From then to today, in particular places and times, local Catholic communities and families have put their own unique wrinkle on the same basic tradition.

Take Europe in the Middle Ages. To reenact the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, the faithful in several countries on the continent held processions. They placed a carved-wood figure of Christ on a similarly sculpted statue of a donkey — a “palm donkey” — and pulled the display around the church and then into it. Sometimes the donkey was placed on a cart or wagon; other communities saw the donkey’s feet fitted with wheels.

Today, in some parts of Switzerland, priests lead followers who wave not palms but branches from young firs. These are decorated with apples and colored ribbons, in imitation of the date-palms witnessed by St. Cyril of Jerusalem in the fourth century.

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 England, “Yew Sunday” in Ireland and “Willow Sunday” in Poland.

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 Poland continue this tradition to this day, although it seems to have originated near or in Lithuania.

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 Churchwide, America’s melting pot blends Palm Sunday customs from many places. The main traditions highlight how the blessed palms, which are sacramentals, are meant to help our spiritual life.

From across continental Europe comes the custom of not just taking the palms home but also draping them or placing them over holy pictures or crucifixes.

While many people form their palms into crosses, many others — Mexicans, Italians, Filipinos — often weave them into elaborate designs and conical shapes.

In old Ireland, the men and boys broke off a sprig (of yew, their palm) and wore it all day in their hat or lapel.

In other places, small palm crosses were pinned on clothing. Come to think of it, this is common today right here in America — among some Protestants as well as Catholics.

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 HomeFamily 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 storms. In Poland, the palms were placed near windows during thunderstorms or put into beehives so that good honey would be produced.


‘From Our God’

Even a big city can adapt a special custom with the palm branches. According to, some families in Philadelphia exchange palms as a sign of friendship and as an offering of peace to amend a squabble or falling out.

“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 Europe and dates to at least medieval times. Back then, Palm Sunday processions around the church saw families stop to kneel by relatives’ graves while the priest sprinkled holy water over the cemetery. France, England, and the lower Rhine area still have Catholic communities that maintain this custom to this day.

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
Trumbull, Connecticut.