Indeed they were given pussies from pussy willows to swallow after coming back home from the mass on Palm Sunday, which was meant to keep children strong and healthy. But there is much more to the symbolism of palms on that day than a few rustic superstitions.
Palm Sunday, the last Sunday before Easter, commemorates Christ’s entry into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. This event is mentioned in all four Gospels: people were cheering, proclaiming Him the king, and covering the path before Him with their capes and palm leaves. There are writings confirming that Palm Sunday was celebrated as soon as the 4th Century in Jerusalem, while the custom of blessing palms originates from today’s France and was already known in the 7th Century.
In Poland, people gather by the church where they have their palms blessed and the appropriate passage from the Gospel is read. After that, the congregation proceeds into the church, in order to recreate the event they had just listened to. During the ensuing mass, the Passion of Christ is read by three people sharing roles of the narrator, Christ himself, and other characters.
Since palm trees are rather unavailable in Poland, the tradition was to make “palms” from pussy willows, as in Bavaria, Austria, Ukraine and other Eastern European countries. One of the reasons for it is that a willow branch, even if dry and broken away from the tree, when it is put in the ground and watered, it will come back to life and become green again, so it serves perfectly as a symbol for resurrection. But the palms are usually much more elaborate than a few willow branches. Depending on the region, people also used raspberry and currant branches, box, vinca, vaccinium, and yew, decorated with ribbons and coloured paper.
Some regions have developed their individual styles of the palm. The highlander palm is just willow, wicker or hazel branches. The Kurpie one is much more extraordinary, as it consists of a fir or spruce bough, wrapped in lycopodium, heather, bilberry leaves, and coloured paper. It can easily reach a few metres of height. These days, however, fewer and fewer people make their own palms. They are usually bought in stalls by the church. The most popular palm offered there is the colourful Vilnius palm: a short stick with dried flowers weaved around it, together with various types of moss and grass, dyed in vivid colours. Trying to promote the holiday and sustaining the tradition of individually prepared palms, many parishes around Poland organise contests for the tallest and most beautiful palms, which later decorate the church for the Easter period, adding to the joy of the season.