Palm Sunday is observed on the last Sunday before Easter. It is a day celebrated by Christians as it represents the triumphant return of Jesus into Jerusalem before his subsequent betrayal by Judas Iscariot and then his crucifixion. It is considered a traditional practice to lay down garments and the branches of trees onto the street as royalty passed by. Palm fronds were believed to have been used to lain down on the streets during Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem on a donkey, to represent his status as the Prince of Peace, according to the version told in the Gospel of John. It was well-known that when a king rode into a city on horse-back, his intentions were of war. But should he ride in on the back of a donkey then he was interested in keeping peace.
Jesus’ return is told in all four of the Gospels; Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. And while the Gospel of John specifically references the usage of Palm branches, it is the version in the Gospel according to Matthew that is read most often during Palm Sunday services and ceremonies. It is perceived that by choosing to enter Jerusalem so ceremoniously riding on a donkey, Jesus was declaring to all that he was the King of Israel.
Palm branches represent victory, goodness, and triumph in ancient times. Additionally, it is referenced at the end of the bible that “people from every nation shall raise palm branches to honor Jesus.” Many churches use palm leaves, sometimes tied to represent a cross, and distribute them to worshipers during a traditional Palm Sunday ceremony.
The beginning of Holy Week is commiserated by Palm Sunday, even though some say that Holy Week begins a day prior on Lazarus Saturday – the day that Lazarus was resurrected from the dead. Palm Sunday is the official end of lent and as such a new period of fasting begins on Palm Sunday.
It is believed that the actual celebration of Palm Sunday dates back to either the third or fourth century. The celebration itself has changed over the centuries, with one version dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries where straw effigies were burned, likely to represent anger at the betrayer – Judas. Although there are those who believe that the burning of straw figures was actually supposed to represent a send-off of winter in preparation for spring.
Palm Sunday irreverently marks the start of the holiest of all weeks in the Christian religion; leading up to the resurrection of Jesus a week later on Easter Sunday.