Palm Sunday, celebrated this weekend by the world’s Christians, is customarily a day of joy. Directed toward the event known as “The Triumphal Entry,” Palm Sunday marks the day that Jesus came riding into Jerusalem, just days before his death, welcomed by the jubilant masses.
People took off their coats and threw them on the ground, an act of homage to a conquering king. They cut down palm branches, waved them wildly in ovation, and sang, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Thus, we have the traditional name for this Sunday one week before Easter, and the custom of distributing palm branches to the weekend’s worshippers.
But not all Palm Sunday commemorations are this tame. In parts of Europe – particularly in the countries of Poland, Ukraine, and Lithuania – Christians bring their branches to church on Palm Sunday as well, though they do not carry palms. Securing a palm branch in the early spring of Eastern Europe is a bit of challenge, so the Christians there have improvised. They bring spruce branches instead, and rather than waving them in the air, they use them to flog each other.
The old tradition, apparently Lithuanian, goes like this: After church on Palm Sunday, the worshippers go home and lash those who didn’t attend church with the spruce branches. Or in some Polish variations, the children are awakened from their beds on Palm Sunday morning by their parents beating them (gently, I am told) with the spruce branches.
Like so many of Christian practices, this tradition has its roots in ancient paganism. Before Christianity came to Europe the local tribes observed a springtime ritual where they would thrash each other with evergreen trees. It was a way of casting off the winter, welcoming the spring, beating off cold, evil spirits, and I imagine it got one’s sluggish blood pumping.