The history and celebration of Palm Sunday
Palm Sunday is one of the most iconic celebrations for Christians worldwide. The holiday itself occurs one week before Easter Sunday, and heralds the triumphant arrival of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem - an event that believers look to as the fulfilment of prophecy in Zechariah 9:9:
"The Coming of Zion's King – See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey".
According to the Gospels, it was a springtime Sunday in about the year 30 A.D. The holy city of Jerusalem was crowded with pilgrims who had come for the annual Passover celebration. Jesus had spent many months traveling through the villages of Palestine. He preached about the kingdom of God and healed the sick wherever He went. Now the time had come for Him to claim His title as the Messiah.
On that celebrated day, He rode a donkey into Jerusalem and the multitudes laid down their cloaks in front of him, and also laid down small branches of palm trees. The people sang part of Psalm 118: 25–26: "Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. We bless you from the house of the Lord"
The story is well-known to most people of Christian faith, as are the traditions that accompany it. Though few look beyond the rituals into the historical and symbolic significance that underscore this event. Why did Jesus ride a donkey? Why did people throw garments and branches on the ground? More importantly, why palm? Jerusalem was home to many types of tree so clearly there is some significance here.
Symbolism of the Donkey
Long before the modern lampooning of what many perceive to be a comical animal, the donkey enjoyed a long and rich history as a symbol of service and devotion. Long admired for its steadfast dedication as a beast of burden, one might argue that there could not be a more appropriate animal for the Man who says in Matthew 11:28 "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.". A life of servitude was something the Jesus not only preached, but emobodied throughout His ministry.
In addition, during biblical times the regional custom called for kings and nobles arriving in procession to ride on the back of a donkey. To them the donkey was also a symbol of peace, and those who rode upon them proclaimed peaceful intentions. First Kings 1:33 mentions Solomon riding a donkey on the day he was recognized as the new king of Israel. More examples of newly crowed kings riding donkeys can be found in Judges 5:10; 10:4; and 2 Samuel 16:2. There is a pattern of symbolism here that makes Jesus' entry into Jerusalem in this fashion all the more powerful and relevant to his followers.
Symbolism of Palm
Throughout the mediterranean and Near East, palm had long been a symbol of victory, peace and eternal life. It was considered sacred in various Mesopotamian religions, and to both ancient Assyrians and Egyptians it represented immortality as a "tree of life". We see this motif reappear through various cultures and religions. The Greeks adorned winners of their Olympic games with palm, and the Romans also considered it a great symbol of victory, associated with the goddess Nike. It is carved into many coins and buildings of the time.
For those of Judeo-Christian faith, the most famous carved interpretations were found on walls and doors of the temple built by Solomon (1 Kings 6:29) but the tradition of waving palms in celebration dates back much farther, to the time when Israelites celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles. According to Leviticus 23:40 they were instructed by Jehovah as follows "On the first day you are to take branches from luxuriant trees--from palms, willows and other leafy trees--and rejoice before the LORD your God for seven days."
Note that a variety of fronds were used, as was probably the case on Palm Sunday, but it is rather telling that palm is the first plant on that list. Clearly there is some importance here. Other ancient texts of the time serve to reinforce the idea. The book of Maccabees, while not in the Biblical canon, provides yet another historical display of palm celebrations. From 1 Maccabees 13:51:
On the twenty-third day of the second month, in the year 171,[a] there was a great celebration in the city because this terrible threat to the security of Israel had come to an end. Simon and his men entered the fort singing hymns of praise and thanksgiving, while carrying palm branches and playing harps, cymbals, and lyres.
So in a nutshell, palm represents not only victory, peace and triumph, but everlasting life, resurrection and vitality. People have celebrated the holy day in this fashion for so long because these traits and meanings were so relevant in Jesus' ascension as Messiah and King.
Evolution of the Tradition
Since the time of Christ, many nations have celebrated Palm Sunday in their own way. While palm fronds are the obvious staple where available, it was inevitable that some places augmented, or adapted the tradition to fit their environment and culture. The colder climates of places like Germany and France led folks to celebrate with flowers and any green branches they could find. Palm fronds were imported to produce a Palm cross, which was also decorated and wreathed with flowers and paraded around.
In Italy the masses opted for box, yew, spruce, and willow branches. Indeed in many places the holiday has been called "Branch Sunday" or in the case of England and Poland "Willow Sunday". Regardless of the names or branches used, the spirit of the holiday has remained consistent, in fact it hasn't really changed at all since the 10th century AD. The ceremony begins with the blessing of the palms. A procession follows, then Mass is celebrated, wherein the Passion and the Benediction are sung. Afterwards, many people take the palms home for decoration and reflection. In some countries, palms are placed on the graves of the departed. The palms blessed in the ceremony are burned at the end of the day. The ashes are then preserved for next year's Ash Wednesday celebration.
As can see from the Bible and numerous historical texts, Palm Sunday, and the palm tree itself have carried powerful signifance to people of all cultures. For many it is simply a symbol of triumph and life itself. For Christians the relevance is even deeper - it's a tangible way for them to reflect on the last days of their Savior's life. The laying and blessing of palms not only commemorates Christ's ascension to His throne, but also helps Christians to prepare their hearts for the agony of His Passion and the joy of His Resurrection.