One joke I heard a lot while growing up is that the two most popular Catholic holidays are Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday – the reason being that nobody can resist a handout! This Sunday is Palm Sunday, the sixth Sunday of Lent and the beginning of Holy Week, and a lot of people are going to be bringing home palm leaves without being entirely sure what to do with them afterwards. (The official answer is that the palm leaves from this year – which are blessed – should be saved until next year when they’ll be burned to make ashes for Ash Wednesday. Unofficially, a lot of people forget and just keep the leaves stowed somewhere, half-forgotten, and parishes sometimes end up ordering their ashes from a supplier to make sure they have enough).
Palm Sunday has some odd contrasts to the rest of Lent – Lent, especially the last week, is a generally somber time (Ash Wednesday kicks things off with the adjuration to “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return”) but the first part of Palm Sunday Mass can come across as fairly lighthearted.
It begins with a stylized re-enactment of Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem, a few days before the Crucifixion, when he was greeted by a lot of enthusiastic admirers who ripped the leaves off of palm trees and waved them as they cheered; basically an impromptu ticker-tape parade. Nowadays, the palms are acquired by the church beforehand, and are blessed – a newish phenomenon, in previous centuries the palm-bearers were blessed, but since nowadays everyone gets a palm, the old custom has become impractical. The processional begins outside the church, where the Gospel story of the entry into Jerusalem is read, the priest and attendants (if any) process into the church, and the rest of the congregation follows, each being handed a palm on the way in. For a small child, especially one who has indulgent parents who don’t mind her ripping his palm leaves up and braiding them into interesting shapes, it can be a lot of fun.
The second part of the Mass is more sober; from the readings about cheering crowds, we quickly transition to hearing an account of the Passion and death of Jesus. (We’ll hear another, more extended version on Good Friday). The “crowd” bits are spoken by the congregation, and of course these words are anything but laudatory (“He relied on God, let God save him!”) To sit in a congregation and say condemning words, while still holding the palm leaves in your hands, will if nothing else drive home the transitory nature of popularity. It would not be long odds to suppose that someone who waved a palm one week was voyeuristically taking in an execution the next.
The first part of the celebration always seems to linger more in the memory than the last, though – possibly because, as mentioned previously, the Passion gets a fuller treatment during the Triduum, whereas the palms are a once-yearly event. Back in the day, Palm Sunday was seen as a lucky day in general – a day for making wishes or starting a new enterprise. These traditions were for the most part developed and adhered to by Europeans, Western and Eastern, most of whom probably never saw an actual palm leaf in their lives – hence Palm Sunday’s changing names, often dependent on the kind of local vegetation used as a substitute. In England, it was known for a while as Willow Sunday, and in much of Eastern Europe, pussy-willow branches were handed out to the officially designated bearers. A lot of Eastern churches still do this out of tradition, even though palms are pretty easily acquired now – as a child, I spent a number of years attending a Ukrainian Eastern Catholic church, and I always brought home a pussy-willow branch from their Palm Sunday Mass.
This is obviously just the tip of the palm frond, so to speak. What have the rest of you seen, grown up with, possibly been weirded out by? This is pretty much the sum total of what I know off the top of my head, except that I unaccountably forgot to mention that I personally have several years’ worth of palms at home which I keep forgetting to give back for burning. Next year, I swear!