Palm Sunday

By Anthony van Dyck, Entry of Christ into Jerusalem

Sunday before Easter

Palm Sunday is a celebration day where the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem in the week before being crucified is commemorated. It is the beginning of the Passion story, which includes the Last Supper, the death of Jesus, and then his eventual resurrection. It takes place on the Sunday before Easter, and is the last Sunday of Lent.

In Biblical accounts of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Jesus arrived on a donkey rather than a horse as a symbol of peace. The donkey is a regularly occurring motif within the Gospels. The people of Jerusalem laid down their cloaks and branches from nearby trees, which would likely have been palms, and in doing so welcomed Jesus as a King. Therefore the traditions of the day have been for clergy to distribute palm leaves or other locally-sourced branches to their congregations on Palm Sunday and bless them as part of the service. The recipients would then take these leaves home and display them, keeping them until the following Shrovetide, where they would be burned on Shrove Tuesday and used to mark crosses on the foreheads of the congregation on the Day of Ashes.

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass.

Zechariah 9:9, KJV

In the Middle Ages in Britain, a straw figure known as the Jack o’ Lent would be build and stuffed, and then abused and stoned by local residents on the Day of Ashes. He was a symbolic representation of both Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus, and Father Winter (and his various iterations including Father Christmas, Father Time, and the Holly King) who was retreating as Spring took hold. The Jack o’ Lent effigy would be burned on Palm Sunday either after the service or at sundown, with the townsfolk gathering to watch. Depending on the local custom, people would shout insults or throw stones at the burning Jack o’ Lent.

Palm Sunday is still celebrated, though burning a Jack o’ Lent is rarely observed. In contemporary times, palms are still distributed within churches, but the day is one of reflection rather than vengeance.

Anthony van Dyck, Entry of Christ into Jerusalem
Anthony van Dyck, Entry of Christ into Jerusalem, Public Domain
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