In the Christian tradition, Palm Sunday is the last Sunday before Easter. It commemorates the day when Jesus rode into Jerusalem, and people greeted him by waving palm fronds and crying out 'Hosanna!'. A remembrance of that day is still practiced in most Christian faiths by bringing palm fronds to houses of worship.
But there is a slight problem. We do not have palm trees in Poland.
We do, however, have extremely rich folk traditions which date back to pre-Christian times, and which have largely survived in the Catholic custom. Such a tradition has evolved from the colourful Slavic decoration of twigs and branches in anticipation of Spring to the Christian weaving of palms.
Two places are particularly well worth visiting in Poland for Palm Sunday: the village of Łyse in the Northeastern region of Kurpie, and the village of Lipnica Murowana, just Southwest of Cracow.
Only there will you find such elaborate palms made out of crepe paper and dried flowers, so tall that they cannot be carried upright.
Łyse, in the Green Kurpie
The village of Łyse holds a contest for the tallest and most beautiful palm. People from all over the region work hard for the fourty days of Lent to make their entries.
The day begins with a mass and a procession and is then occasion for a market where the locals sell their handmade wares- palms, painted eggs, lacework, pottery, carvings, as well as regional food such as honey, bread, meats and beer.
But be not mistaken. These palms are not only a testament to the rich folklore of Kurpie, but also a sign of religious devotion. Palm Sunday does not mark the beginning of a feast, nor is it a festival, but is the first day of the week in which the Christian God was killed by the very people who first greeted him with such joy. These amazing palms are first and foremost an offering to Jesus and a hope that believers may be strong enough not to betray him again and again as his first followers did, and modern Christians have no doubt done many times in their lives.
Lipnica Murowana, Lesser Poland
A slightly different type of palm can be found in Lipnica Murowana, a small village in the southern mountains. They are less stocky than Kurpian palms, with different patterns, and show more green twigs, boxwood and dried flowers than their northern counterparts. And most of all, they are much, much taller.
Like Łyse, Lipnica Murowana has its procession, market, and festivities. And like Łyse, it holds its own contest for the best Palm Sunday palm.
There are several categories, but the one that has everyone biting their nails is the Contest for the Tallest Palm.
This gets VERY competitive. And there are rules that make it all extremely exciting. For starters, no nails or other metal elements can be used in making the palms- only wood, willow, reeds, green branches and paper flowers are allowed.
In the photo above, the second-tallest palm of 2011 is raised, with great care and caution.
Wires, ropes and lines from synthetic materials are also forbidden. In order to qualify in the contest, the palm has to stand upright without breaking, it has to be raised with no help from machines (hence the men in the trees guiding the lines, and those on the ground, pushing with special long forks), and the author must be able to wrap his hands around the trunk.
The palm in the photo above is the first prize winner of 2011, at 36.4 metres- that's almost 120 feet! I heard someone say the whole thing weighed about 600 lbs. It took about a dozen men half an hour to get it upright.
Here are some of the shorter palms, arranged around the statue of St. Szymon:
And for a height comparison, this is me with the palms I bought. They were made by local schoolchildren:
As an aside and a link to pre-Christian Poland, to which we owe a great deal of these colourful customes, it's worth taking note of the little wooden gothic church of St. Leonard which stands in Lipnica by the Uszwica river. If you go inside and walk around behind the altar, you will find that it is suspended on a worn, wooden pillar.
This pillar is supposedly a Slavic Pagan totem which once represented Svetovid, a four-faced god. Though the building as we see it now was built in the 15th century, the first church on this site was originally built in the early 12th century, in a Pagan holy grove. Instead of being destroyed, the sacred statue was used as a support for the altar. Poland had only been Christian for a few hundred years, and the old Slavic faith was still very much present. But here as everywhere, the new religion replaced the old one- albeit with an unusual amount of respect.
Location of Łyse:
Location of Lipnica Murowana: