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Transatlantic Blog

Palms and pussy willows: How global trade enriched your Palm Sunday

This weekend marked Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week, when Christians commemorate Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem en route to His voluntary death, burial, and resurrection. On that day, Christians of all backgrounds bless and wave palm branches in imitation of the crowds who cried “Hosanna” as He rode a donkey into the city. But not all Christians use palm branches. Palms cannot grow in the harsh climate of northern Slavic nations such as Russia, Ukraine, and Poland. Instead, Catholics and Orthodox Christians in those areas long ago substituted pussy willows.

The churches saw deep symbolism in the willows, one of the first plants to blossom in the springtime. A rich, crimson – almost blood red – shell grows on the branches until a white bud bursts through it, symbolizing the triumph of life over death. In some nations, like Poland, Christians cover the branches with local wildflowers to make them more fragrant.

The notion is not altogether unbiblical; St. Matthew mentions Jesus being greeted with “branches from the trees.” Still, to many of us, a Palm Sunday without palms is unthinkable. And thanks to the wonder of global trade, it is also unnecessary.

The United States imports 25 to 30 million palm fronds for Palm Sunday, doubling or tripling the average demand. The global trade, which already represented nearly $30 million two decades ago, mostly benefits Mexico and Guatemala – especially those nations’ workers.

Those who harvest fronds from Guatemala’s palm plants – known as Chamaedorea or Xate – earned 250 to 300 percent higher wages than those who engaged in other kinds of agricultural activity. “At least half the farmers in communities studied by Anthropologist Norman Schwartz in the Central Peten [region] of Guatemala earned additional income from harvesting fronds, and more than a quarter of household heads were supporting themselves exclusively by collecting fronds,” according to one expert study.

To many of us, a Palm Sunday without palms is unthinkable. And thanks to the wonder of global trade, it is also unnecessary.

Yet another study found that expanding palm cultivation for export could provide more than one-third of the total annual income in Mexico’s impoverished Yucatan Peninsula. This trade has a clear ability to lift the world’s population out of poverty.

Not all who benefit live abroad; the vast majority of palms in the United States are grown domestically. One palm supplier from Florida – fortuitously named Thomas Sowell – began his trade to make extra money. He now supplies all 50 states and Canada. Along the way, he found greater significance in helping the nation’s churches celebrate one of their holiest holidays. "Every bag that we send out to churches, every individual bag has been examined, cleaned – we go to extreme measures to make sure that everything we do for these churches is done in the honor of Jesus Christ,” Mr. Sowell told CNA/EWTN News.

His story shows how people of faith may find their vocation in both the celebration of a church service and in supplying the goods that make it possible. In the process, they enjoy the dignity of work and the security of an income.

The fact that churches in America – and Europe, including the once-forbidding climates of Eastern Europe – have palms to wave is thanks in part to the wonders of the free market.

(Photo credit: St. Petersburg Theological Academy. CC BY-ND 2.0.)


Rev. Ben Johnson is a senior editor at the Acton Institute. His work focuses on the principles necessary to create a free and virtuous society in the transatlantic sphere (the U.S., Canada, and Europe). He earned his Bachelor of Arts in History summa cum laude from Ohio University and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa.