Palm sunday: who will be the "palm donkey"?

Can you imagine a Christmas without a brightly decorated Christmas tree? What about a harvest festival without a feast? In Austria, a Palm Sunday without the ‘Palmbuschen’, specially decorated palm branches, would be equally inconceivable. The religious reasons behind all of these customs – i.e. the birth and resurrection of Christ – are often no longer the focus of the festivals, and have little resonance beyond the Christian world, yet the traditions remain.
Palm sunday in Zillertal

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Easter traditions, palm sunday, baking pretzels and the palm donkey

I want to find out more about my local Easter traditions, especially about Palm Sunday. So, I make my way to Ginzling, some 10 km from Mayrhofen in the Ziller Valley. When I arrive at my destination, Haus Eberharter, Barbara Eberharter greets me with a friendly smile and beckons me inside. Barbara is a warm-hearted, middle aged lady, and the mother of 5 children (!).

 

BAKING PRETZELS

Barbara welcomes me into her beautiful and spotless home. Plants and twigs are already laid out on the table in preparation for making and decorating the palm branches. Normally, Barbara only bakes the Easter pretzels on the Sunday before mass. However, this year she has agreed to start earlier for me. The kitchen smells of delicious baking and the pretzels are already waiting on a baking tray above the oven. I can’t wait to enjoy one with my coffee. Mmm, they are really yummy.

 

 

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Palm sunday and the palm donkey

Me: „What does Palm Sunday mean to you?

Barbara: „It’s a tradition. In our village everyone brings their decorated palm branches to church on Palm Sunday. We’ve been doing it since we were children, and have grown up with the tradition. The boys mount their palm branches on the top of long sticks, the girls carry them in their hands. Of my five children, only Friedrich still carries his palm branch on a stick. I used to have to prepare three or four palm branches for church. Fortunately, I now have less work to do.“

 

Me: „What role do the palm branches play in the celebration of Palm Sunday in Ginzling?

Barbara: „Of course, the boys have a competition to see whose is the longest – palm branch, of course! And the last to leave the church with his stick is the ‘palm donkey’. So you can just imagine the mad rush to leave after the priest has finished his service. They all want to be first out and race outside with their sticks. The best thing to do is just stay seated and wait for things to calm down.

 

Me: „Why have you got several different decorations for the palm branches?

Barbara: „It all depends on what the weather is like. I’ll only use the crepe paper decorations if the weather is nice. Otherwise the colour comes off and drips on your Sunday best as you’re sitting in church! The bows are better for rainy weather because they’re made from material. When we’re not sure how the weather will be, we have to take a chance with the decorations…”

 

Barbara laughs as she talks and I realise why traditions are so important to us. Traditions and festivals remove us briefly from our everyday life, they structure our year and satisfy our need for entertainment and fun. Traditions combine celebration and faith. We pass them on to the next generation and insist on the rules and rituals being continued. A local custom unites the regional communities who observe it in the same (or similar) way. And that’s exactly how it is with the Eberharter family in Ginzling.

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What happens to the palm branches after the big day?

“After Palm Sunday, the palm branches are hung on the balcony or in the home. When there’s a storm, we burn one of the twigs on the fire, which is said to protect the house and family from the storm,” explains Barbara.

Palm Sunday commemorates Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. Jesus rode on his donkey and was greeted by jubilant crowds who cried: “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. The King of Israel!” They laid down palm branches, which were considered holy, on the road in front of him. Palm branches were also a symbol of independence and victory. It is thought that the modern celebrations have their origins in ancient church services in Jerusalem, where Christ’s procession was re-enacted as part of the celebration. However, the blessing of the palms has pagan roots. 

But, let’s get back to Ginzling in the Ziller Valley. Barbara explains that it’s very important to her that the whole family help with the baking of the pretzels and making the palm branches: “We all sit down together, laugh, chat and have a good time.” 

 

I think I have come to understand the importance of such traditions. Of course, they provide us with a regular programme of events around which to structure our year, and mark important stages in our lives. Also, the society we grow up in is decisive in determining which traditions are followed. However, more important than the customs themselves and their religious meanings, is the opportunity to get together, spend time with family and our community, and enjoy being with our nearest and dearest. Barbara from Ginzling has opened my eyes, and I return to Mayrhofen with warmth in my heart. 

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