Was There Always Palm on Palm Sunday?

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By Father Al Ledoux

The Church is preparing for Passion Sunday – or Palm Sunday as it is more commonly known. This is the day when Catholics the world over go to Mass, and they come back home with some palm leaves – or is it?

In this country, thanks to refrigerated train cars and tractor trailers, we have found honest-to-goodness palms in our churches for a very long time. Many of us can remember our grandmothers weaving palm crosses or braiding a crown for the large crucifix in the parlor. But getting palms on Palm Sunday wasn’t always so.

Travel to most parts of Europe and you won’t see palm branches in the churches at all. It’s a fact that the words of blessing the priest uses don’t even mention the word “palm.” He refers only to “branches,” and here is where local ingenuity comes into play.

Our Byzantine Catholic brothers and sisters, as well as the Orthodox of Eastern Europe, have for many centuries used pussy willows – an appropriate sign of new life – for Palm Sunday. Elsewhere in Europe, it’s boxwood that gets used. The important thing is that it be green and living when it is cut.

This reminds me of an intriguing conversation I had in Altoona back in the early 1990s with a little lady who is now deceased. Alice Chirdon Gardini Deems was born in Patton in 1899. She was tragically orphaned when she was just a year old. That’s when Alice and her many brothers and sisters were taken in by various relatives. Alice spent part of her girlhood in Gallitzin, where – as they did everywhere else in our region – Catholic mothers would send their kids out scavenging for greenery the day before Palm Sunday. This was no small challenge, as Palm Sunday usually occurs when everything is still brown and dead from winter.

The kids would come back to the house, and Mama would tie up their finds with a distinctive ribbon. There was a good reason for this. The next morning when the family arrived at church, Mama would place her bouquet of greenery on the communion rail. At the start of Mass, Father would recite the blessing prayer and sprinkle all the bouquets with holy water. After Mass, Mama would be able to recognize HER bouquet by the distinctive ribbon she had used. And that’s how the family got to have “palm” in their home for that year.

The green shoots that we use on Palm Sunday – of whatever variety they might be – look forward to Christ’s resurrection, when life had the last word over death. In that spirit, I wish a happy and holy Easter to you all.

Father Al Ledoux is the Pastor of Saint Demetrius Parish in Gallitzin and the host of The Family Album segment on Proclaim! TV, which recalls the people, places, and events that helped to shape the family of faith in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.