Palm Sunday takes its name from the Gospel account of Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem—a week before his arrest, crucifixion, and resurrection—when adoring crowds laid palm fronds in his path. It became customary to reenact this procession prior to Mass on the Sunday before Easter.
The palm fronds used are often blessed and carried home to be hung above doorways or tucked behind holy pictures until the following year. On Ash Wednesday, the old palms are burned and the ashes used to mark foreheads as an emblem of mortality and humility, a fitting symbol of the turning of the annual cycle from triumph and glory to death and decay.
In the Philippines, palms are woven into decorative designs called palaspas. Since palms are not available everywhere, different plants are featured in different parts of the world. In England, willow, hazel, box, or yew branches are more typical greens. In Latvia and Russia, pussy willows are used, while in Lithuania, willow and juniper twigs are twined together and decorated with flower blossoms. In Bulgaria and Romania, Palm Sunday is known as Flowering Sunday and flowers are scattered in the church. In India, marigolds are sprinkled around the sanctuary.
Although palms are woven as an element into the Passion story, it is also evident in the fanciful way they are used as decoration that this custom celebrates the glorious greenery and flowers of spring.
Waverly Fitzgerald is a writer, teacher, and calendar priestess who has studied the lore of holidays and the secrets of time for decades. She shares her research and her thoughts on her Living in Season website and in her book, Slow Time. She is currently working on a series of essays about looking for nature in the city and blogs for the Seattle PI as the “Urban Naturalist.”