I found the Big Bend region of Texas especially alluring, a huge chunk of arid hill country ablaze with blooming cactus. There are two small towns at the Northern edge: Alpine and Marfa. Marfa is famous for mysterious lights that flicker and dance in the hills and for being the staging site for the 1950s movie Giant. When I visited it had a new presence of the minimalist sculpture artist Donald Judd, who was buying property and putting up post-modern installations.
I drove through the Big Bend region toward the great dip of the Rio Grande. I followed El Camino Real to the dusty border town at the tip of the Big Bend, Presidio, said to be the author James Michner’s favorite place in America. There’s not much habitation in the Big Bend. But there are many collectible rocks. At a rock ranch where I spent a night camping, wild pigs snorting around me, the solitary keeper of the place, learning of my trek, told me I must visit the little Mexican city across the border from Presidio. “Ojinaga,” he declared, “has the most incredible Palm Sunday Procession you’ll ever see.”
On his recommendation, I staged a visit, daring to drive my truck into Mexico. In Presidio, I bought supplementary auto insurance, spent the night in an old motel, and got up early on Palm Sunday to visit Ojinaga, Chihuahua. No one was about when I arrived at the Plaza facing the smallish 16th century Catholic Church designated as a cathedral. I perched myself on a bench along the length of the plaza and surveyed the mounting activity. I learned that I was a rare gringo visitor and something of a curiosity.
Slowly, people began to arrive, beginning with a half dozen shoe shine and squeegee boys. They immediately approached me and we had a very halting conversation. I speak little Spanish and tried to tell one engaging boy that I was from Chicago to no effect until I said “Casa Michael Jordan.” “Ah,” the lad nodded his head. A balloon man appeared to sell from a colorful array of Disney characters. And worshippers, mostly women with children, walked across the plaza carrying flowers in their arms. More people arrived and entered the dark interior of the cathedral—all carrying flowers.
I was, so I thought, witnessing a quaint local custom: flowers not palms on Palm Sunday in Ojinaga. I entered the church and the cool, dark interior was redolent with the smell of fresh blooms. The priest was an operatic appearing, basso voiced, bearded presence. He gathered children to tell them a story. From the choir loft, a group of women wailed songs that seemed of another culture and time. And after the children’s story, everyone left the cathedral, flowers waving to the sky, to process around the square. This was in remembrance/imitation of Jesus’s triumphal entrance into Jerusalem, beginning the week of his death and resurrection.
I loved the ritual in the bright light. I imagined the flowers, rather than the traditional palms, remembered the ancient Aztecs love of color and feathers.
After the service, I recovered my place on the bench watching the crowd disperse more quickly than it had formed. A man sat next to me and essentially checked me out, but in a friendly way. He turned out to be the town treasurer. I told him of my trek. “I just love your local custom of flowers instead of palms.” He looked at me with a crinkled smile. “So you didn’t hear. The Father explained at the beginning of the service that the truck bringing the palms had broken down, so he had the word spread that everyone should bring a flower or a branch.”
This comes to mind today, Palm Sunday, a Sunday Unitarians have long observed as Pussy Willow Sunday. I was introduced to this custom during my internship at the Universalist Church of Syracuse, where there were several congregants influential in the great Unitarian Religious Education movement of the 1950s. (One couple had written the first Church Across the Street Curriculum.) Another Jo Gould, a small sprightly woman in her 80s had written/edited a series of religion and science booklets for the Beacon series called How Miracles Abound.) Jo introduced me to Pussy Willow Sunday as she placed a huge bouquet of catkins in a vase for the altar.
I mentioned this to Pam Fodor the other day. Pam remembered that when she was a young girl in this church, someone came into every classroom on Palm Sunday with a vase full of pussy willows.
For forty years, since first introduced to our little ritual, I think of the Sunday before Easter as Pussy Willow Sunday. How Unitarian, I’ve thought, bringing nature and spring to the beginning of Holy Week which in many traditional churches is literally shrouded in symbols of death—purple cloths covering statues and crosses.
I Googled Pussy Willow Sunday to find references and remnants of this Unitarian practice. What I found instead was a host of references to Eastern and Greek Orthodox practices, particularly Latvian and Ukrainian. The commentary here generally declares that typically in the northern climate the only natural sign of rebirth in March or April involves the early growth of willows. So, traditionally, the willow branch was substituted for palms and the moniker Pussy Willow Sunday became commonplace.
It further seems that this was grounded in an ancient pre-Christian custom. According to one blogger:
The last Sunday before Easter (Palm Sunday) is called Willow Sunday (Verbna nedilia). On this day pussy-willow branches are blessed in the church. The people tap one another with these branches, repeating the wish: “Be as tall as the willow, as healthy as the water, and as rich as the earth.” They also use the branches to drive the cattle to pasture for the first time, and then the father or eldest son thrusts his branch into the earth for luck.
The cutting of pussy-willow branches was not originally a Christian substitute for palm branches. Since pagan times, the pussy-willow’s bloom was seen as a signpost for spring and was thought to have healthful qualities if ingested. Pagan Ukrainians would cut the branches and swat one another with them to bless each other with the pussy-willow’s strength to come out of winter so early in the year. When Palm Sunday began to be celebrated, the two practices merged into one.
For me, Pussy Willow Sunday is a reminder to look deeper on any subject. Don’t believe that what you believe to be is totally or unimpeachably true. Beware of your own prejudices and misimpressions. Check the facts. THANK YOU, GOOGLE!
I’m also reminded that beneath all religions there are similar if not the same impulses. Easter we know is an amalgam of customs. The very name references an ancient Indo-European goddess of the dawn and its date is set by a Jewish lunar calendar as processed through the Julian calendar and the church. Paganisms blend with pre-Christian and Christian customs: the egg and rabbit juxtaposed to the cross and empty tomb.
On this Sunday before Easter Sunday, let’s gently tap one another with spring branches,
- reminding one another that a Great Event will be reenacted after an eventful week, in mythic solidarity with our Christian friends
- and invoking the natural powers of spring emerging from winter to make us strong in spirit and body for another year.