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Palm Sunday Traditions


A group of palm branches wrapped in red ribbon lying on a wooden table.

Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week, the holiest week of the liturgical year. During Holy Week, we walk with Jesus through his final days before his crucifixion. The tone of this week begins with joy as we remember his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Like the people in the Bible, we wave palm branches and shout “Hosanna,” proclaiming Jesus to be the “King of Kings.” We remember his ultimate victory over death. We also pray that we who bear these palm branches will “ever hail him as our King and follow him in the way that leads to eternal life” (Book of Common Prayer).


However, the day intertwines our joy with impending sorrow. The jubilation of Jesus’s arrival foreshadows the path to his crucifixion. We grow painfully aware of our fickle human nature, for the same voices that welcomed him at his coming would cry out for his crucifixion just a few days later. But we are also reminded of Jesus’s humility. He chose a path of peace and servitude over power and dominion, inviting us to reflect on the nature of true kingship and the kingdom of God.


The Scripture Story of Palm Sunday


All four Gospels tell the story of Jesus’s Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. The Gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem (Luke 9:51), knowing that it would mean the end of his earthly life. As he moved toward his final destination, he continued healing, teaching, and preaching about God’s kingdom. 


As Jesus and his disciples neared Jerusalem, arriving at Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples ahead with a specific task: to find a donkey and her colt, untie them, and bring them to him. The disciples did as Jesus commanded. They brought the donkey and the colt to Jesus, laying their cloaks on them as makeshift saddles.


As Jesus rode towards Jerusalem, a crowd gathered, waving palms and spreading their cloaks and palms on the road. The multitude shouted praises, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” 


The Pharisees were furious over this response to Jesus. They cried out to him and told him to rebuke his disciples. But Jesus replied that if his disciples kept quiet, the very stones would cry out (Luke 19:39-40). 


When Jesus drew near to Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it. His tears were for their inability to recognize the time at hand, for the peace that could have been theirs had they opened their hearts to his message. He foresaw the dire consequences of their rejection, knowing that the time was coming when the Romans would besiege the city, trapping them with no escape. 


The Symbols of Palm Sunday


Palms

During the Roman Empire, palms were a symbol of triumph and victory. It was customary to wave them when someone of the highest honor was passing by and to lay them down in their path. Later, with the Early Church, they became associated with Christian martyrs and their spiritual victory or triumph over death. They are also mentioned in Revelation 7:9, where a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language, stood before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 


Riding a Donkey

Jesus entering Jerusalem riding on a donkey fulfilled the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9, 

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!    Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!See, your king comes to you,    righteous and victorious,lowly and riding on a donkey,    on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

The choice of a donkey instead of a horse symbolized peace, as kings rode horses when they went to war but rode donkeys in times of peace. Jesus’s entry on a donkey was a declaration of His kingdom of peace, starkly contrasting with the expectations of a military messiah who would overthrow Roman rule.


The Palm Sunday Service


The Palm Sunday service typically begins with the Liturgy of the Palms. The congregation often gathers outside the church building for this part of the service, where they receive blessed palm branches. The priest leads the people in prayers and reads the Gospel account of Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem. This leads to the “Procession of the Palms,” where the congregation processes into the church holding the palm branches aloft, reenacting Jesus’s journey. The congregation sings hymns such as “All Glory, Laud, and Honor” as they process, echoing the Hosannas of the biblical narrative.


A reading of the Passion of Christ (the time from his arrest to his death) plays a central role in the service. Churches often do this as a dramatic reading, with different voices representing characters in the story, such as Jesus, Pilate, and the crowd. This immersive reading helps congregants engage more deeply with the story of Jesus’s suffering and death and sets the tone for the solemn observances of the coming Holy Week.


The vestments for the day are deep scarlet red, the color of blood, indicating the supreme redemptive sacrifice Christ was entering the city to make.


Palm Sunday Traditions Around the World


In India, during the Gospel reading, the crowd repeats “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord God” three times, followed by a congregation shout of “Hosanna!” Marigolds are then strewn about the sanctuary.


In many northern areas, people will use pussy willow and other twigs instead of palms. In Latvia, Palm Sunday is known as “Pussy Willow Sunday,” where the twigs are blessed and distributed, sometimes used for ritualistic swats to awaken children.


Hoegaarden, Belgium, hosts a large Palm Sunday procession. Men dressed as the Twelve Apostles carry a wooden statue of Christ around town. Children also go door to door offering palms for coins.


In the Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox Church, where they call the day “Hosanna,” palm leaves are blessed, distributed, and crafted into crucifixes and ornaments.


In the Philippines, the people process a statue of Christ on a donkey to the church in the morning. Congregants line the route, waving intricately woven palm branches.


In certain English regions, Pax Cakes (Latin for “Peace”) are given by the priest to the congregation. Dating back to 1570, a frustrated landowner funded cakes and ale to foster peace and reconciliation among parishioners before Easter Communion. Today, Pax Cakes are distributed with the blessing of “Peace and good neighborhood.”


Ways to Observe Palm Sunday


  • Read Matthew 21:1-11. 

  • Attend the Palm Sunday service at a church. Holy Week is one of the most important times in the Christian year, and traditionally, every effort is made to attend every Holy Week service. 

  • Do something special with your palms. Since a priest has blessed the palms, they should not be thrown away. Traditionally, palm fronds or crosses are brought home, hung over doorways or next to crosses, or pressed in bibles to be saved until Shrove Tuesday, when they are brought to the church, placed in a collection basket, and burned to make the ashes for Ash Wednesday.

  • Intensify your Lenten fast. You may have let some of your commitments slide during the previous weeks. If so, recommit yourself to follow your Lenten discipline this final week before Easter. 

  • Make a Palm Sunday Wreath: a simple wreath of palm branches and a red ribbon. Don’t worry if you don’t have palms! You can use any branches or greenery from your yard.

  • Make a Palm Sunday Mobile: decorate your home with this sweet Palm Sunday Mobile that you can easily make with your children. All you need are simple supplies that you already have in your home and yard.

  • Make Pax Cakes: round shortbreads stamped with the image of the Easter lamb and flag or the Chi Rho (the insignia for Christ’s name). 

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