Palm Sunday: the last Sunday before Easter, 5 April 2020
Palm Sunday heralds the start of Holy Week: the end of Lent. The Easter festivities usually begin with a festive procession held as part of a church service. In Austria, both children and adults go to church with Easter palms. These are bouquets of pussy willows that are often decorated with colourful ribbons or Easter eggs. But what exactly is being celebrated?
The religious background
Palm Sunday celebrates Jesus' entry into Jerusalem. According to the Bible, people laid down palm branches in his path as a sign of reverence. However, as palm trees do not grow in the Alps, the people here have turned to the furry grey pussy willow, sometimes also combined with branches from other native trees.
A lucky charm for home
Easter palms are consecrated during the Palm Sunday mass. They are believed to avert disaster and are, therefore, later displayed in homes. They are often put up in the "Herrgottswinkel", a corner of the wall next to the dining table where a small shrine or crucifix is often found and, which is thought to be the centre of the household. The branches can also be attached to crucifixes that are mounted on the wall, holy pictures or mirrors. They then stay there on display for almost a year: until Ash Wednesday, the start of the following Lent. At this point, people burn them and use the ashes to make a sign on their forehead. In the Catholic faith, this ash cross stands for cleansing and is believed to give new strength.
"Palmlattentragen" is a spring tradition that unites Christian and pre-Christian beliefs. This custom is practised throughout the whole of Tyrol and involves wooden slats or poles that are several metres long and adorned with all sorts of spring greenery and colourful ribbons. These large "Easter palms" are consecrated in the church during the Palm Sunday service and then carefully stored ready to be brought out and burned in the oven to ward off severe thunderstorms, flooding or other natural events if required.
The custom takes on a special form at Palm Sunday celebrations in Axams and Grinzens. Normally, "Easter palms" are only used to decorate the top end of the wooden palm poles. In Axams and Grinzens, however, they decorate the entire length of the pole. The "Easter palm" at the end is made up of olive branches, pussy willows and specially produced Lenten pretzels.