I came across an old palm strip a few days ago - from a Palm Sunday long past. It was in the box where I keep precious things - my first rosary, first Sunday missal, First Communion certificate, and the holy cards collected from my years in Catholic school. I tried to remember the significance of this particular palm. Why had I kept it for so many years? My grandfather died on Palm Sunday when I was in High School. Was this palm from that Sunday? It got me to thinking about the special nature and spiritual significance of palms.
Palm Sunday is the first day of Holy Week and the Sunday before Easter. On this day Christians everywhere remember the glorious entry into Jerusalem of Jesus riding on a donkey, while a great multitude of people welcomed Him and waved Him on. All four Gospels tell us that the people took branches from the palm trees that lined the road and waved them in the air shouting Hosanna, and threw their clothes and palms on the path in front of Him with great jubilance. They did this just days before His crucifixion.
Each year, right before the Palm Sunday Mass, palms are distributed to us and we carry them in procession into the church. Our procession with palms is a sign of our joy and gratitude to Jesus Christ, Our King.
Why Wave Palms?
It was common practice in the ancient world to welcome home a king or war hero by laying out a path of palm branches for him to ride on or walk on – similar to rolling out the red carpet today. For millennia Palm branches have been recognized as a symbol of peace, victory, and eternal life. This was true in the ancient Near East - modern day Turkey, Cyprus, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, Egypt, and the Arabian Peninsula - and in the Mediterranean world!
History of Palm
In Assyria the palm was one of the trees identified as a sacred tree connecting heaven and earth. Reliefs from the 9th Century BC show winged creatures holding palm fronds in the presence of this sacred tree. In Egypt, the palm represented immortality, and was carried in funeral processions to represent eternal life. In Judaism the palm is part of the Feast of Tabernacles, hearkening back to the temporary dwellings in which farmers lived during harvesting, and to the fragile dwellings built of palms that the Israelites lived in during their 40 years in the desert. In their religious festivals the Israelites used palm branches for rejoicing. In ancient Greece a palm branch was awarded to victorious athletes, and in ancient Rome the Latin word 'palma' was a substitute word for victory – a victory of any kind. A lawyer who won his case in the Roman Forum would decorate his front door with palm leaves.
The palm image also appears on coinage issued in 38–39 AD by Herod Antipas. (In 1965, during excavations at Masada in Israel, palm seeds 2000 years old were uncovered. Some of the seeds were planted and one grew!)
In the beginnings of Christianity, the palm represented the victory of martyrs - the victory of the spirit over the flesh. In the 4th Century AD, coins issued under the Emperor Constantine continued to display the palm leaves of victory. In 1688 the Church decided that when they found the palm image carved on tombs discovered in the Roman catacombs, it was to be understood that a martyr had been buried there.
Today we use palm leaves on Palm Sunday to commemorate Christ’s sacrifice: we remember His death on the cross and continually praise Him for our salvation. And, we anticipate His Resurrection a week later at Easter: His victory over death holds out to us the hope of eternal life.
All Palms be Alike?
No. Palm trees grow only in certain places and they are not all the same. Fronds vary in shape, size, and color - from green to yellow. Color varies depending on the type of soil; the temperature; the amount of rain; the length of time since harvesting; and how the palm is packaged and handled. It must be stored at between 40 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit, or it could either mildew or dry up. Most of the palm for North American churches comes from the Gulf Coast of Mexico, the Florida Everglades, and the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. After the leaf is cut and processed, it is packaged in plastic and kept in cold storage. Time in transit must be kept to a minimum, because outside the controlled temperature environment, the freshness of the palm may be compromised. In addition, the efficiency of the process is important for getting fresh palm “from the field to the faithful” at low cost.
The palm strips distributed to us on Palm Sunday generally come in two sizes. Long palm strips are a favorite among those who like to fashion the palms into crosses or other Christian symbols. They are also used in Church displays because they are easy to arrange. Short palm strips are selected for crowded churches, and because they are easier to carry, they are a good choice for children. A moderate range in size and color can be found, whether the strips are long or short, since palm grows with variation.
Fan palm is used for decorating the churches. An assortment of this green palm makes a beautiful display for the sanctuary. The fan palm has many leaves and grows to be substantial in size. Just a few can transform a large area into a spectacular reminder of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem!
How to Dispose of Palms?
The palm for Palm Sunday is blessed, and thereby becomes a sacramental. It can be returned to the church or taken home and kept for the year. Sacramentals must be treated with respect and should never be put in the trash. Blessed palms should be returned to nature. After the Palm Sunday service, the priest or an assistant may collect the palms. The priest burns them and saves the ashes for Ash Wednesday of the following year. The faithful who take their palms home may either keep them as holy, or dispose of them properly. They should be buried in the ground or burned and the ashes spread outside.
Cherish Your Palm!
If you haven’t saved a palm from a Palm Sunday past, do it this year! The historical significance and symbolism of this special branch will perpetuate a tradition that goes back thousands of years! How often do we get to do that?