Palm Sunday or Willow Sunday Вербна Неділя marked the beginning of the Easter preparations in Ukraine. In western countries this day is known as Palm Sunday, but instead of palm leaves Ukrainians use pussy willow branches. After the service, it is customary to ‘tap’ one another with the willow branches to encourage good health (and to call to mind Christ’s suffering). This act is accompanied by the phrase:
Буд’ великі як верба, здорові ’як вода, богаті як земля.
Be as healthy as big as a willow, as healthy as water, as rich as the earth.
According to tradition, the willow is then placed in the household until it is later placed in the Easter Basket in preparation for the blessing. In some regions, some of the blessed branches are planted in the garden by the father or eldest son.
In solidarity with our Eastern European Christian brothers and sisters, this year a full church waved pussy willow branches at our liturgical commemoration of the Lord’s entry into Jerusalem.
‘Whenever the Christian Family gathers at the Lord’s Table on the Lord’s Day, we are conscious of those united with us, not merely ‘world-wide’ but also ‘time-long’ down all the Christian centuries. This truth is never more poignant for us all than at the beginning of Holy Week.
This year, with the atrocities of the War in Ukraine uppermost in many of our minds, the Holy Family Parish took an imaginative step by identifying with the Christian communities there and in their neighbouring States by adopting one of the ancient traditions of the region.
When Crusaders from Britain, especially in the south, had brought back Palm Trees from the Mediterranean as sacred souvenirs of their expeditions to the Holy Land in the late Middle Ages, they began to replace our native shrubs as being more suitable to cut down and wave as they sang their Hosannas to greet our Redeemer King as He enters His Holy City. Most Northern and Eastern European Countries retained their ancient customs and the Pussy Willow, which begins to show signs of life in early Spring, continues as the symbol of rejoicing at the beginning of Holy Week.
Each of us, ‘armed’ with a Willow Branch, held them aloft for Blessing and waved them in Procession before the Mass began. After the Service, which included a dramatised proclamation of St Luke’s account of the arrest, trials and Crucifixion of Jesus, many continued the Eastern European theme by gently tapping one another with their Branch and offering the Prayer that they ‘Grow as tall and strong as the Willow; as healthy as the water and as rich as the Earth’, and saying ‘It is not I who am tapping you but the Willow telling you it is Easter in a week!’
–– Richard Stranack