If you were in the right place at the right time last Sunday in the Netherlands, you may have seen the Dutch tradition of Palm Sunday processions with palm crosses, Palmpasen. I’ve managed to live in the country for over 25 years and never seen it. I will have to try harder next year!
On the Sunday before Easter, the Christian church celebrates Palm Sunday, the day when Jesus triumphantly entered Jerusalem on the back of donkey, with his followers laying down palm leaves in front of him. When I was a child going to Sunday school in England, this was the Sunday when we were given a palm frond cross similar to the one here. I used to keep mine in my Bible. I thought I still had one, but unfortunately I’ve lost it somewhere along the way.
Palmpasen – Palm Sunday in the Netherlands
In some parts of the Netherlands, children make palmpaasstokken, Palm Sunday sticks in the form of a decorated cross. The Dutch palmpaasstok usually takes the form of a wooden cross with a cockerel made of bread at the top, green twigs such as box or pussy willow, coloured eggs, streamers and wreaths of sweets or fruit. Some schools and churches make these with the children then take them in a procession to an old people’s home or they are given to grandparents. In other places, Palm Sunday crosses are hung up in the house. In Germany, crosses or branches are also decorated for Palm Sunday, with a wide range of regional styles. Try googling for images under palmpaasstok for the Netherlands or Palmstock for the German equivalent if you want to see some photos.
I read somewhere the other day that there might be a link to the Meibaum (May tree) tradition in Germany on 1 May, when branches of trees outside houses are decorated with ribbons. Likewise, in England, May Day is traditionally celebrated by dancing around a maypole, a tall pole with long ribbons attached. The dancers hold the ribbons and skip in certain patterns, interweaving the ribbons to create particular patterns. We used to do this at infant school and I’d love to try this again because it was fascinating and great fun. I do love folk dancing!
Sources: Palmpaasstok – http://www.beleven.org/feest/palmzondag; children – Openluchtmuseum
Palm Sunday symbolism
Cross – the crucifixion
Green & yellow streamers – Spring, season of renewal and new life
Green (box) twig – resurrection
Bread cockerel – the cockerel which crowed 3 times when Peter denied Jesus
Bread – symbolises the body of Christ, shared at the Last Supper (commemorated on White Thursday – Witte Donderdag, the day before Good Friday)
Sweets or fruit – 12 chocolate eggs symbolising the 12 disciples, 30 raisins refer to the 30 silver shekels paid to Judas who betrayed Jesus
Symbolism and Christingle
All this symbolism reminds me very much of the Christingle service I went to as a child at one of my local churches in the UK and at the English-speaking church in Arnhem / Nijmegen, years later. The children made a Christingle out of an orange (representing the world), wrapped in a red ribbon (the blood of Christ), dried fruit on 4 cocktail sticks pushed into the sides of the orange at right angles (fruits of the earth and the four seasons), then a candle pushed into the top of the orange (Jesus, Light of the World). According to Wikipedia, tin foil is also used to symbolise the metal nails used at the crucifixion, but I have never seen this used. I remember that the first time I saw this tradition, it seemed quite bizarre and didn’t seem connected to anything else at Christmas except the candle. Apparently it was introduced in 1968 as a fundraiser for the Children’s Society because children donate a purse of collected money and had been a tradition in Germany for hundreds of years. So perhaps those symbolic connections with the Palmpasensstok are a genuine link as they are also made in parts of Germany.
Singing about Palmpasen
So what was I talking about in my title? How many eggs make an egg? Surely that makes no sense? Well, there’s a Dutch children’s nonsense song about Palmpasen and I, for one, can’t make head nor tail of it:
Ei koerie Egg hooray
Pal-lem, pal-lem Pa-sen, Ei koerei! Palm Sunday, Palm Sunday, egg hooray!
Over enen zondag krijgen wij een ei A week on Sunday we’ll get an egg
Eén ei is geen ei, One egg is no egg,
twee ei is een hal-lef ei Two eggs makes half an egg
drie ei is een Paasei! Three eggs makes an Easter egg!
One source describes how the boys (not the girls!) would go from door to door to collect eggs, banging on the ground with their sticks, singing a similar song. If nobody came to the door, they would bang even more loudly and perhaps even throw eggs at the door. However, the eggs were usually given to the priest or teacher later, or could be distributed to the poor.
Quite by chance, while I was looking up images to use in this blog post, I noticed an image for a coin that was struck in the local town of Nijmegen in the reign of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I (1152-1190), nicknamed Barbarossa, showing the figure of the emperor holding a palm. I wondered if it was made for Palm Sunday to give as a charitable donation, but apparently the palm branch was a Roman symbol of victory, so probably not. The tradition of the palm frond as symbol of victory, whether over death or the temptations of life remained.
As you may have noticed, I enjoy finding out about the symbolism of folklore, tradtions and festivities and I enjoy connecting the dots. There’s more where that came from. Next year I really hope I can take a photo of the real thing, or perhaps I’ll make my own. Have your children made a Palmpaasstok, do you have a different tradition where you come from? Or do you eat special foods on Palm Sunday? I’d love to know.