Q. Is it true that Palm Sunday customs have been as varied as Christmas and Easter customs around the world?
A. Yes, indeed! Palm Sunday commemorates, of course, Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, when palm branches were spread before His path by those who welcomed Him (see John 12:13). The palm is a symbol of triumph and rejoicing. Though most American churches today use palms exclusively, in earlier times, in lands where palm branches were difficult to obtain, other branches were substituted, such as box, olive, willow, and yew. For this reason the day was once called in England either Yew, Willow, Olive, or Branch Sunday.
Around the world, flowers have long played a prominent role in the celebration of this day, with blossoms blessed and intertwined with the palm or other tree branches. So in England, Germany, Armenia, and some nations of Eastern Europe, it has also been known as Flower or Blossom Sunday. In some places in Germany and France, flowers are strewn around the churchyard to celebrate the day; in some parts of India, marigolds are scattered on the floor of the sanctuary itself.
In Bulgaria, the feast is known as “Flower’s Day.” Women with names derived from flowers (such as Rosa, Violeta, or Lilia) consider it their name day. In the Philippines, children dressed as angels sing traditional hymns and scatter flowers before Mass. In some parts of Wales, graves are traditionally decorated with flowers that day.
In Spain, because of its close association both with the Paschal (Easter) season and with flowers, Palm Sunday is known as Pascua Florida, from which the State of Florida receives its name. The sixteenth-century Spanish Catholic explorer Ponce de Leon gave the peninsula that name because he first arrived there on Palm Sunday.
In Latvia, Palm Sunday is known as “Pussy Willow Sunday,” because pussy willows are blessed and distributed to the faithful; in that culture, they are known as a symbol of new life. Children are often awakened on Palm Sunday morning by swats of willow branches. In Finland and Syria, children go door-to-door with pussy willows, dressed up as “Easter witches,” exchanging the willows for coins and candy.
Perhaps the most unusual Palm Sunday celebration was a custom in the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries in England. A straw effigy called a “Jack-o’-Lent” was stoned and abused on Ash Wednesday, then kept for burning on Palm Sunday. Apparently, the ritual represented a symbolic revenge on Judas Iscariot, who had betrayed Jesus.