Saturday, March 30, 2013

Palm Branches, Pussy Willows, Boxwood and More

Pope Benedict with palm branches familiar to us

Boxwood "palm" branches on a pole
Pussy willows on Palm Sunday

It is a common mistake of mine.  I assume the way we in Wisconsin do things now (or did those things in the early years of my life) must be the way they are/were done in the European countries so many of our ancestors came from.  I remember my Palm Sundays, standing in church while the Priest said prayers of blessing over the palm branch I held tightly.  My palm branch looked just like the one carried by Pope Benedict in the picture above.  When I came home, my mother showed me how to braid (I am still not good at this) or curl the fronds.  The branch was placed behind the crucifix on my bedroom wall, to be replaced in one year by a new one.  End of story.

So  I had no plan to do a blog post about Palm Sunday because I assumed most readers would have a familiarity with such a palm branch.   Then I had an e-mail from a friend who lives in France near the German border.  She told me that her youngest granddaughter, who is five+, was anxiously looking forward to her first Palm Sunday service, which she would attend with her aunt. My friend said she herself was planning to spend the day before Palm Sunday with her granddaughter whom she loves dearly.  She would take her some boxwood from her own yard.  Obviously this was a different experience than the one which a child in an American Catholic Church would have.

A French website was able to shine some light on the use of palms versus boxwood:

The Gospel of St. Matthew says that the disciples were cutting branches from the trees and strewed the road (Mt. 21/8). These branches were probably olive branches.  Species of tree branches used today are varied. Palm branches are carried in processions in some regions like the southern provinces of Spain and those of Portugal. In most French departments, they have been replaced by boxwood.  In some, like Provence, the branches of laurel and olive trees are carried.  They use olive branches in Italy and parts of Spain. In England, they carry goat willow; in Holland, holly.  In Poland willow twigs symbolize rebirth and resurrection. Germany and Alsace often form a plant which is on a wooden rod adorned with boxwood and/or other branches and decorations.

It became clear to me that many people who come to church on Palm Sunday already have their hosanna branch, whatever the type, firmly in hand.

That brought into question what people in the land of my ancestors did with their "palms" after they were blessed.  A book with the title (translated) "Stories and Legends from the Saar and Mosel" by Josef Ollinger answered that question in more ways than I had ever thought possible.  Most of these beliefs and customs were from olden times in the small country villages.

The blessed branches were a  protection against sickness, crop failure, and disaster and were reverenced in many ways during the course of a year.  Villagers in farming communities in the Mosel and Saar would make use of the pieces/ twigs of the blessed branches, possibly on the same day that the "palm" branches had been blessed:

*A piece was placed over the house door to protect the family.

*Each crucifix in the home had a piece of the "palm" branch behind it to protect the house from sickness and disaster.

*The small holy water founts in each room held a little piece of a "palm" branch.

*Another small piece was taken to the cellar to prevent spoilage of the vegetables that were kept there.

*In the stable, the stalls of the animals had pieces of "palm" to protect them from sickness.

*The part of the barn where equipment was kept and the grains were stored received a piece of "palm" branch to protect from lightening and fire.

*A part of the blessed "palm" was burned in in the oven so that the smoke going to heaven would protect the house from lightening.

*A piece of palm was inserted in each field in the land belonging to the farmer, in order to beg God to give a good harvest.

*Young men put a piece of "palm" on their hat;s young girls wore a piece at their breast.  The author doesn't say this, but it seems that palms might have been considered a help in finding a sweetheart.  It also occurs to me that a sprig of boxwood or pussy willow would be the most attractive form of "palm" to wear.

*It was believed that if a "palm" leaf was chewed and swallowed, it would protect against a fever.

*When someone died, the hands of the deceased were folded holding a rosary and a "palm" branch.

*In the cemetery, if the grave had a holy water holder to bless the grave of the deceased, a piece of blessed "palm" would be included.

Some might call all of these customs mere superstitions of an uneducated class of people.  To me it shows the humility of people close to the earth and aware of their dependence on something much greater than themselves.

Ollinger, Josef, "Geschichten und Sagen von Saar und Mosel, CONTE Verlag, 2005