One of the oldest traditions in the Catholic Church dates from the 4th Century when the church began the celebration of Palm Sunday in preparation for Easter. To this day, many liturgical churches distribute palms to parishioners or in many countries, highly ornamental palms may be purchased. The palms are blessed as the liturgy begins with a ceremonial entry commemorating Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.
The logistics of providing millions of ceremonial palms is significant. Months before the date, palm harvesting and preparations begin. In the US, palms come from Florida, California, or Texas. Many churches place their orders months in advance through various liturgical supply companies. These perishable orders are shipped to arrive within one or two weeks of Palm Sunday. Instructions for keeping the palms or palm blades preserved include placing them in coolers or snipping off ends and placing them in water. A number of suppliers now stress the environmental stewardship of the palms they provide, harvesting them sustainably with workers paid fair wages.
After Palm Sunday, there are also many traditions for disposing of blessed palms. Many churches collect the palms and burn them, or send them back to their suppliers for burning. The ashes are kept for next year’s Ash Wednesday. Many parishioners make shapes and crosses from their palms, displaying them or keeping them for devotional prayers. There’s even a tradition of placing the palm under the mattress for good luck!
Burning or burying a blessed palm is also appropriate. One blogger, Kelly Wilson, describes the difficulty finding a suitable place for his old palms in Manhattan. He takes his son out to bury the blessed palms, encountering beer cans, trash, and rocks. I appreciate his revelation that all of God’s creation is holy as he places the blessed palms back in the ground in a public park.