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A palm branchHallo again to all.

Several decades ago we celebrated Palm Sunday at Canterbury Cathedral. The service began, as they so often do on that day, with a procession. Palm trees being in rather short supply in Southeast England, each worshiper had a small booklet on which was printed a drawing of a palm frond. Those who knew the custom, and were not shy, held high the booklet. We sang Hyfrydol ('Alleluia! Sing to Jesus') as the processional hymn.

There were at least a thousand people in the processional; this being England, we all processed in a very orderly fashion. One disadvantage of an orderly procession is that it takes a long time. Allan Wicks played the hymn at least six times through before the last worshiper was seated, and as each wave of people entered the doors, singing what they knew of the hymn from memory, they discovered that they were several verses out of sync with the choir. Great consternation came with the sudden realization by most worshipers that their singing was utterly unrelated to where the organ and choir were in the cycle of songs. A few just kept singing what they had been singing, but Rowland Prichard's masterpiece was not written to be a canon. Those with sophisticated ears felt even greater consternation at the din.

We suppose that the sermon by Dr Willis was memorable, except that we don't remember it. Its earnest message has long since merged into our aggregate understanding of our faith. A pair of visitors from Zimbabwe (who still referred to their homeland as Rhodesia) had been behind us in line, and we caught up with them at coffee hour. One immediately asked 'Processing in while waving paper booklets over one's head! What an odd custom!' We explained that the seemingly-bizarre custom was an improvised attempt to mimic a well-established tradition, that of waving real palm fronds in memory of the palms placed in Jesus' path as he entered Jerusalem.

But we've never forgotten the incredulity of those visitors at bizarre rituals for Palm Sunday. Probably as a result of this, we've been quick to notice mentions of other strange Palm Sunday customs. Here are a few of our favourites.

A whipAt Caistor-on-Sea in Norfolk, someone at the Society of Antiquaries of London noted in 1770:

At Caistor, on Palm Sunday, a man holds over the priest's head a whip with a leathern purse at the end containing thirty pieces of silver, signifying the price of blood paid to Judas, and four pieces of witch-elm tied upon the Cross to typify the Gospel. During the reading of the first lesson the whip is cracked three times in the porch to commemorate S. Peter's denial, and during the second lesson it is waved thrice over the head of the reader in honor of the Holy Trinity.†

At Warminster in Wiltshire, Nathaniel Spencer observed in 1772:

Near the town is a place called Clayhill, which rises to a considerable height, and is seen at a great many miles distance. It appears like the crown of a man's hat, and is resorted to by the youth of both sexes on Palm Sunday, when they endeavour to push one another down, the descent being so steep, that if one of them loses his step, he cannot recover himself till he is at the bottom. As this diversion is only practiced on Palm Sunday we imagine that it had been formerly the practice of the Romish ecclesiastics to exhibit some of their interludes on the hill.††

Edinburgh Magazine, describing English pilgrimages to the Holy Land, reported in 1787:

Yafa is the port where the pilgrims disembark. They arrive in November, and repair without delay to Jerusalem, where they remain until after the festival of Easter. They are lodged confusedly, by whole families, in the cells of the convents of their respective communions; the monks take especial care to tell them that this lodging is gratuitous; but it would be neither civil, nor very safe to depart without making an offering greatly exceeding the usual price of apartments. Besides this, it is impossible to dispense with paying for masses, services, exorcisms, &c another considerable tribute. The pilgrim must also purchase crucifixes, heads, agnus-dei's, &c. On Palm-sunday, they go to purify themselves in the Jordan, an expedition which likewise requires a contribution.... The reader must consult particular relations of this pilgrimage, to form an idea of the tumultuous march of this fanatic multitude into the plain of Jericho; the indecent and superstitious zeal with which they throw themselves, men, women, and children, naked into the Jordan.†††

Writing about Russia, Thomas Salmon described in 1744:

On Palm Sunday there is another grand procession of the clergy through the capital city, when the Patriarch used to ride at the head of them, on a horse covered with white linen, carrying a book with a golden crucifix upon it in his left hand, and in his right a gilded cross, with which he blessed the people; the Czar himself marching on foot before him, and holding the reins of his bridle in one hand, and a palm branch in the other. In the rear followed the Archbishops, Bishops, nobility, and several hundred papas in their officiating habits. Thus they proceeded to the great church, all the bells in the city sounding as on rejoicing days, for they do not ring their bells as with us; and from hence the Czar, with the nobility and Bishops, used to go and dine at the Patriarch's house.††††

Perhaps these odd traditions developed because the core meaning of Palm Sunday is mysterious; people were experimenting, trying to find something that felt right. One of the more ancient traditions of Passion Sunday (now called Palm Sunday) was the recital with a rosary of the Sorrowful Mysteries, each of which was related to the Passion in some way. Anglican Rosaries, while rare, do exist, and their use is certainly no more mysterious than dangling four pieces of witch-elm from a whip held over a priest's head. Come to think of it, the events that we remember on Palm Sunday are so incredible that, compared to them, nothing is a mystery.

See you next week.

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Last updated: 28 March 2010

Archaeologia, Or, Miscellaneous Tracts Relating to Antiquity, 17. Society of Antiquaries of London, 1770, p. 317.

††Spencer, Nathaniel. The Complete English Traveller; or, a New Survey and Description of England and Wales, Containing a Full Account of Whatever is Curious and Entertaining. Printed for J. Cook at Shakespear's Head in Pater-Noster Row, 1772, p. 83.

†††Sibbald, J. (Ed). The Edinburgh Magazine or [sic] Literary Miscellany, VI. Edinburgh and London, J. Murray, 1787, p. 263.

††††Salmon, Thomas. Modern History: or the Present State of All Nations, Describing their respective Situations, Persons, Habits, and Buildings; Manners, Laws and Customs, Religion, and Policy; Arts and Sciences, Trades, Manufactures and Husbandry; Plants, Animals, and Minerals, Third Edition. London, various printers, 1744, p. 615.

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