The liturgies this weekend will be taking us back to that first Palm Sunday in Jerusalem. The Scriptures recount that the people tore palm fronds from the trees to lay before Jesus. They believed that Jesus was to be their redeeming king and laid that carpet of green before him in anticipation of the great victory Jesus would wield over the Romans. I wonder what happened to all of those palms? Did people then realize who Jesus really was and take one of the palm fronds with them to place on their home as a remembrance?
This weekend as we hold our palms our fingers will begin to run along the smoothness of each long frond. Almost instinctively, some of us will be begin to twist and turn our palm into a simple cross or perhaps an elaborate weaving, just as we have done every Palm Sunday since we were children.
The weaving of Palm Sunday palms is becoming a dying folk art. Sr. Mary Praxedes, my second grade teacher, taught each of us how to do a simple, three-stem braid. I recall the nuns at my parish grade school weaving palms in shapes of a cross, a flower or grape clusters. These weavings then would be blessed at Mass and taken home to grace the crucifixes, holy pictures, statues and photos of dead loved ones until the next Lent.
There are many Palm Sunday traditions that exist, with a few having been carried over to the United States. In particular families on Palm Sunday afternoon making trips to the local cemeteries to place palms on the graves of loved ones.
In Italy people offer blessed palms as a token of reconciliation and peace to those with whom they have quarreled or are on unfriendly terms with.
In the Slavic countries, farm families walk through their fields Palm Sunday. Praying and singing hymns, they place a sprig of blessed palms in each lot of pasture or growing field to draw God’s blessing on their livestock and the year’s harvest.
In different parts of the Christian world branches of other bushes and trees were used, including olive, box elder, spruce and various willows, and it was customary to bless not only branches but also various flowers of the season. Hence some people refer to Palm Sunday as “Flower Sunday.” Today in the Czech Republic, large clusters of palms, interwoven with pussy willows and flowers ,are adorned with ribbons, fastened to the top of a wooden stick and placed throughout the villages and countryside.
We must remember that because the palms we bring home are blessed, they are considered sacramentals and should be treated with respect. Prior to each Palm Sunday, old palms should be removed from the home and buried, burned or returned to the parish church for proper disposal. Blessed palms should never simply be discarded in the garbage.
If this Sunday you are handed a more leafy palm rather than a pale yellow, your parish may be part of the “eco-palms” movement, which began in 2005 to benefit farmers economically and environmentally. Coming from free-trade farmers in southern Mexico and northern Guatemala, these palms are harvested in a way that helps preserve the forest with more of the profits going to the harvesters. On this Palm Sunday, 1,436 churches will distribute 364,000 eco-palm stems.
Zahorik is pastoral associate at Most Blessed Sacrament Parish, Oshkosh.