We all know palm branches were cut from trees and strewn on the streets the first Palm Sunday when Jesus entered Jerusalem on a colt. Before that time, the early Israelites used “palm fronds, leafy branches and poplars” (Leviticus 23:40 NIV) to adorn the booths at an autumn festival.
The origin of this ritual of fruits and palm branches is obscure. However, the festival called Sukkot (the Hebrew word for booth), or Feast of Booths or Tabernacles or Ingathering, continued to be celebrated (Numbers 29: 12-32; Deuteronomy 16:13-16; Ezra 3:4). Although the festival was neglected curing the Exile, it was resumed upon rediscovering the law of Moses and the people were instructed to “Go out into the hill country and bring back branches from olive and wild olive trees, and from myrtles, palms and shade trees to make booths” (Nehemiah 8:15, NIV) to commemorate the success of reaching the Promised Land after 40 years of wandering.
Palm and willow branches were not only used for shelter, but parents and children carried and waved them during processions around the altar for the seven-day festival. A priest recited Psalms of Praise 113-118, known as Hallel, while, at intervals, the gathering shouted “Hosanna!” (Save us now).
It wasn’t until the Temple was restored, during the Maccabees’ rule, that palm fronds, called lulaw or lulab, were commonly carried in these processions. They were taken home and believed to be a good-luck charm for the year.
It was also common during the Maccabean rule to strew palm branches before an approaching king. Simon Maccabeus, after the military conquest at Jerusalem, “entered into it... with thanksgiving, and branches of palm trees, and with harps and cymbals, and with viols, and hymns, and songs.” (The books of Maccabees, called Apocrypha, can be found in some Bibles.)
During the Roman era, it was customary to strew paths with palm branches for returning soldiers victorious in battle. Romans also awarded palm leaves to winners of contests of skill and strength. From this custom comes the saying, “Let him bear the palm who merits it.” This symbol of victory came to signify a martyr’s triumph over death in Christian symbolism (Revelation 7:9).
Accordingly, upon Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, He was greeted by a large crowd shouting hosannas, waving palm branches and scattering them in His path (Matthew 21:1-11; Mark 11:1-11; John 12:12-16; Luke 19;28-40).
This day, later called Palm Sunday, was not observed until around the fourth century, when
Christianity was proclaimed the state religion. Some historians say Palm Sunday was instituted by Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem between A.D. 382 and 386. Although the church services varied from locality to locality, there was usually a blessing of palms, distribution of palms, and a procession of clergy and congregation.
During the Middle Ages, some processions were held around the church and cemetery. Graves were strewn with flowers and palms as a symbol of victory over adversity.
More elaborate processions led through town and back to the church. The entry of Jesus into Jerusalem was reenacted by clergy riding a colt and carrying the Host for Mass. The people threw flowers and palms along the way while singing Hosanna. Sometimes the representation of Jesus and the colt was made of wood and equipped with wheels. Some of these customs have died out.
Another custom called for the joining of two pieces of palm to form a cross. The faithful carried them home and hung them on the wall or on a holy figure. It was believed palms had the power to ward off evil throughout the year.
In some churches the palm leaves are burned on Ash Wednesday and saved to apply to the foreheads of the faithful on Ash Wednesday in the following year. The wearing of ashes and sackcloth is an ancient sign of repentance.
Other than the traditional blessings, processions and beliefs, Palm Sunday received various names when palm branches were not available, including Olive or Branch Sunday; Willow or Willow Twig, Sallow or Yew Sunday; or Sunday of the Willow Boughs. In some areas, not only palms, but also flowers were strewn on graves, giving rise to the name Blossom or Flowering Sunday. In some countries children received figs to eat in memory of the Parable of the Fig Tree, hence, the name Fig Sunday. And when children made a drink from Spanish licorice and holy water, the day was known as Spanish Sunday.
This Palm Sunday, find yourself a little sprig of palm, the symbol of joy, exultation and victory. Visualize Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, join the crowd, wave your little palm branch and shout a resounding “Hosanna, hosanna in the highest!” For this is the day of palms.