On the Sunday before Easter we celebrate the triumphal entry of the Lord Jesus Christ into Jerusalem, one of the 12 Great feasts of the Orthodox Church, known as Palm Sunday. This joyful spring day offers believing Christians a brief spiritual respite and relaxation from fasting, as if to gather strength before Holy Week. From ancient times, the celebration of this day has been associated with traditions originating from the Gospel events. In this article, we would like to talk about these events as well as the history and unique characteristics of the holiday, along with its various names across different parts of the world.
The events of the Lord's entry into Jerusalem are described by all four evangelists. They were preceded by a supper at the house of Lazarus, who had been raised by Christ. During the Supper, Mary, the sister of Lazarus, anointed Christ's feet with fragrant myrrh, thus unconsciously preparing Him for burial.
On the following day, people flocked to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, the main Jewish holiday. After hearing about the resurrection of Lazarus, they were eager to meet and welcome Christ. They were waiting for Him as the Messiah, a victorious king and leader of the nation who would deliver them from the Roman rule. The people solemnly welcomed Christ entering Jerusalem, covering His path with their garments and palm branches and shouting: "Hosanna*!" "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" "Blessed is the king of Israel!"
However, contrary to popular expectation, Christ does not enter Jerusalem as a warlord or revolutionary. His kingdom is not here. He is not riding a horse, but a donkey, the symbol of the peace that He gives to all who love Him. The donkey also signifies the pagan peoples, who would soon accept the Gospel teaching and carry it throughout the earth.
Interestingly, shortly after this event, the apostles tell Christ about the first conversion of Gentiles, to which the Saviour replies, “The hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:23-24). These words reveal the purpose and essence of the Lord's Entry into Jerusalem — the sacrifice that He is about to make for the salvation of mankind. Thus the triumphant procession of Christ becomes His walk to the coming suffering.
The tradition of celebrating Palm Sunday dates back to the beginnings of the Christian era. In the Russian lands the celebration was introduced in the 10th century with the adoption of Orthodoxy. The Manuscript of Svyatoslav II (11th century) is the first source mentioning the fact of using pussy willow in festive worship.
For a long time, some Christian countries had a tradition of organising a symbolic procession on a donkey . The ruler walked through the city with a donkey or a horse ridden by the bishop who was blessing the local residents as they greeted the procession with tree branches. The procession ended at the city cathedral, in which the bishop celebrated Liturgy. This was a reproduction of the Gospel events surrounding the Lord's Entry into Jerusalem. This tradition, like many others, came to Russia from Byzantium, but was abolished in the 17th century at the insistence of the authorities.
The Donkey Walk of tsar Alexis (Vyacheslav Schwarz, 1865)
The popular festivities associated with the day's celebration included festivals, preparing treats with fish, fairs and willow markets. People would lightly hit each other with willow branches, endowing them with symbolic properties of protecting from evil and disease.
In Christianity, the tradition has survived to this day to bring to the church for consecration the branches of the plants that first awaken in the spring. They symbolise the palm branches that the people of Jerusalem used to pave the way for Christ.
In Russia and Belarus, willow-tree branches are used that's why the feast is also called Verbnitsa ("a willow-tree day").. People buy decorated branches in churches or create their own and keep them near their home iconostasis until the next Palm Sunday.
Palm Sunday at St. Elisabeth Convent, Minsk, 2022
The popular names for the feast of the Lord's Entry into Jerusalem vary from country to country. In most cases these names are derived from the plants and flowers that people bring to the church for consecration. Because of different climatic conditions, the plants (and consequently the names) used in different countries are also different. The most popular names of the Sunday before Easter around the world are Flowery Sunday, Willow Sunday, Hosanna Sunday, Passion Sunday, La Domenica delle Palme and others.
In Greece, Palm Sunday is called the Sunday of Palm Branches (Κυριακή των Βαΐων) or the Resurrection of Lazarus. People bring laurel and palm branches to the festive service and keep them for a year until the next Lent in the same way as the Eastern Slavs keep their willows. Many folk traditions in Greece are also associated with branches of plants. Children use them to weave wreaths and figures - such as a cross or a fish - and throw them into the sea. It is common to decorate branches with scraps of cloth and go door to door chanting songs and prayers. The most solemn celebration takes place on the island of Corfu, commemorating the island's rescue from a plague epidemic in the 17th century. A large procession accompanied by a marching band parade goes through the city carrying the relics of St. Spyridon of Trymythus who saved his people from danger.
In Georgia, Palm Sunday is called "Bzoba" (from ბზობა - bush or boxwood). The ancient Colchis boxwood growing only in the Caucasus is currently in danger of complete extinction. It is therefore specially cultivated for the feast. Boxwood and willow trees are used for making baskets to be consecrated in the church.
In Armenian language, this feast is called Tsakhkazard, which translates as "Decorated with Flowers". The leaves blessed during the festive liturgy in Armenia are usually young willow and olive branches. Many folk customs associated with this day are now almost a thing of the past. For example, young guys uprooted willow and brought it home, where its branches were decorated with colourful ribbons. In some countries, the branches consecrated in church were used in the household.
The names of the Feast used by the southern Slavs ("Cveti", "Cvjetnica") are associated with the abundant flowering of spring plants. Other names are Vrbitsa, Cvetna Nedelya, Kuklinden and others. Willows are also blessed here, and, as in other countries, there is a wide variety of traditions and folk customs that vary in different regions. In Bulgaria, great importance is attached to the veneration of the dead on this day. The folk ritual known as "kumichene" is popular here: girls weave wreaths and throw them into the river, competing to see whose will float the farthest. In Macedonia, women pick flowers in the meadows and make bouquets for each family member, placing the largest one in front of the icons.
In Western European countries - Italy, Spain, Germany, and the UK, the Feast is called Palm Sunday. In Italy, believers bring home palm and olive branches, exchanging them as a sign of reconciliation. In many regions, it is a common tradition to weave different sized arrangements out of palm leaves and exchange them.
Spain is known for solemn processions performed on major Christian holidays by Catholic monastic orders. People in themed costumes with a statue of Christ and palm branches in their hands pass through cities walking from one cathedral to another.
Another popular custom here is to wear new clothes or shoes on Palm Sunday.
Tenerife. Procession in honor of the Lord's Entry into Jerusalem
Similar processions with a figure of Christ on a donkey decorated with tree branches are made in other countries, such as Germany and Belgium. In Germany, palm branches are often replaced with willows, boxwood and other plants.
In this country Palm Sunday is celebrated with branches of fir, yew and spruce trees commonly found there. In the Irish language, the feast is known as Yew Sunday. At the same time, the branches brought to church for consecration are symbolically called palm branches.
In Welsh, the name of the Feast is Sul y Blodau, which translates as "Sunday of Flowers". In this country, the main tradition of the Feast has long been to prepare cemeteries for Easter. People decorate the graves of their reposed relatives with garlands and flower arrangements.
Western Slavs consecrate willows during the festive service, and then distribute them to the people. The name of the Feast in these countries sounds like Niedziela Kwietną, i.e. "Flower Sunday". In Poland, other names include Palm or Willow Sunday. The Feast is celebrated very solemnly, with locals donning traditional attire and bearing long, elaborately crafted "palms" made from woven willow, hazelnut branches, medicinal herbs, straw, and adorned with vibrant paper flowers and ribbons. In some areas, there are even contests held for the longest palm, which can be several tens of meters high.
Trees decorated with bright ribbons can be seen on the streets of the Czech Republic and Slovakia during the period leading up to Easter. On Palm Sunday, believers also hold small processions similar to those organised in churches.
The history of Christianity in India is associated with the preaching of the holy Apostle Thomas. The traditions and rituals here are a vibrant combination of local customs, characteristic of the diverse Indian culture, and Christian practices. The name Palm Sunday is widespread in India. In Catholic parishes, palm branches are blessed on this day and distributed to people after the service. There is a tradition to weave crosses from these branches and keep them for a year.
In some regions of India, as well as in Orthodox parishes during the Gospel reading, the church floor is strewn with marigolds, traditional to Hindu celebrations.
The most "non-traditional" name for Palm Sunday is probably that used by the Coptic (Egyptian) and Ethiopian Orthodox churches. Here the Feast is called Hosanna. Yet the traditions are similar to other countries - palm branches are also consecrated and distributed to believers in churches.
*Hosanna means "save us" in Greek.