Turning Year: Celebrating Palm Sunday

The donkey had a special role on Palm Sunday.
The donkey had a special role on Palm Sunday.
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Today, the sixth Sunday in Lent is Palm Sunday, the start of Holy Week. Christians remember how Jesus arrived in Jerusalem riding on a humble ass, while the welcoming crowd threw palm leaves in His path.

The palm leaves were significant, because in Hebrew tradition they were the sign of a virtuous man. The ass was a statement too, because this beast of burden was the transport of the poor.

Donkeys are very patient animals, which is perhaps why they used to be thought stupid. On their back they carry two dark stripes in the shape of a cross. Folklore says this is a holy mark, given in recognition of the donkey’s role on Palm Sunday.

In medieval Britain a lack of palm leaves didn’t hinder the celebrations. Willow leaves, judged to be similar, were carried instead in church processions.

Before the Reformation, churchgoers took little willow crosses to be blessed by the priest. Made from willow twigs in the shape of St Andrew’s cross, they were believed to protect homes against the evil eye. By then a secular custom, willow crosses finally died out in North Yorkshire in the 1840s, but in recent years there’s been a revival.

In the eighteenth century, Palm Sunday gatherings took to the hills. There were hilltop fairs, with games played up and down the slopes. Some wells were said to change colour on the holy day, or acquire healing properties, but most people weren’t there to be cured. They queued up with their jugs to collect well water, which they made into a sweet drink by stirring in pieces of liquorice root.

In northern England, Palm Sunday had an alternative name — Fig Sunday. Because Matthew’s gospel tells how Jesus wanted to eat figs on the way to Jerusalem, people consumed fig pies and fig puddings made with treacle and spices. Those with an aversion to figs could tuck into pond pudding, a steamed currant pud in a shell of suet pastry. Phew.

Spring in the air

Already the sun can feel quite warm, and from Sunday we’ll be seeing more of its light. Today is the day of the vernal equinox when day and night are of equal length, more or less.

So is this the first day of spring? It is if you’re an astronomer. For the Met Office, the season started on March 1. Some people say spring begins on May 1, even though our forebears used to sing, “summer is a-cumin’ in” on Mayday.

This kind of confusion isn’t new. It can be traced to the old Quarter Days, when dues were paid and hiring was done.

Two systems were in use, one based on the astronomical year and the other on the agricultural year. The former had a Quarter Day on March 25, close to the vernal equinox. The latter reckoned its Quarter Day on February 2 was the start of spring, because that was when the first lambs were born.

February seems to have the better case. By March spring is well underway, with skylarks singing over the fields, toads and newts heading for the breeding ponds, and molehills springing up all around. We can’t yet place a foot on seven daisies — a traditional marker of the season’s arrival — but some hawthorns are sprouting sprigs of green leaves, weeks earlier than usual.