Why Are Palm Branches Used on Palm Sunday?

Palm branches on Palm Sunday
Sébastien Désarmaux / Getty Images

Palm branches are a part of Christian worship on Palm Sunday, or Passion Sunday, as it is sometimes called. This event commemorates Jesus Christ's Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, as foretold by the prophet Zechariah.

Palm Branches on Palm Sunday

  • In the Bible, Jesus ' Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem with the waving of palm branches is found in John 12: 12-15; Matthew 21:1-11; Mark 11:1-11; and Luke 19:28-44.
  • Today Palm Sunday is celebrated one week before Easter, on the first day of Holy Week.
  • The first celebration of Palm Sunday in the Christian church is uncertain. A palm processional was recorded as early as the 4th century in Jerusalem, but the ceremony was not introduced into Western Christianity until the 9th century.

The Bible tells us that people cut branches from palm trees, laid them across Jesus' path and waved them in the air as he entered Jerusalem the week before his death. They greeted Jesus not as the spiritual Messiah who would take away the sins of the world, but as a potential political leader who would overthrow the Romans. They shouted "Hosanna [meaning "save now"], blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!"

Palm Sunday Story
Procession in the Streets of Jerusalem, by James Tissot. SuperStock / Getty Images

Jesus' Triumphant Entry in the Bible

All four Gospels include the account of the Triumphal Entry of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem:

The next day, the news that Jesus was on the way to Jerusalem swept through the city. A large crowd of Passover visitors took palm branches and went down the road to meet him.
They shouted, "Praise God! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hail to the King of Israel!"
Jesus found a young donkey and rode on it, fulfilling the prophecy that said: "Don’t be afraid, people of Jerusalem. Look, your King is coming, riding on a donkey’s colt.​" (John 12:12-15)

Palm Branches in Ancient Times

Date palms are majestic, tall trees that grow abundantly in the Holy Land. Their long and large leaves spread out from the top of a single trunk that can grow to more than 50 feet in height. In Bible times, the finest specimens grew at Jericho (which was known as the city of palm trees), Engedi, and along the banks of the Jordan.

In ancient times, palm branches symbolized goodness, well-being, grandeur, steadfastness, and victory. They were often depicted on coins and important buildings. King Solomon had palm branches carved into the walls and doors of the temple:

On the walls all around the temple, in both the inner and outer rooms, he carved cherubim, palm trees and open flowers. (1 Kings 6:29)

Palm branches were regarded as tokens of joy and triumph and were customarily used on festive occasions (Leviticus 23:40, Nehemiah 8:15). Kings and conquerors were welcomed with palm branches being strewn before them and waved in the air. Victors of Grecian games returned to their homes triumphantly waving palm branches in their hands.

Coin with palm tree and palm branches
Sestertius of Vespasian depicting victory over Jews with two prisoners on either side of palm tree, AD 71, Roman coin, 1st century AD. De Agostini / A. De Gregorio / Getty Images

Deborah, one of Israel's judges, held court from underneath a palm tree, probably because it afforded shade and prominence (Judges 4:5).

At the end of the Bible, the book of Revelation speaks of people from every nation raising palm branches to honor Jesus:

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.
(Revelation 7:9)

Palm Branches Today

Today, many Christian churches distribute palm branches to worshipers on Palm Sunday, which is the sixth Sunday of Lent and last Sunday before Easter. On Palm Sunday, people remember Christ's sacrificial death on the cross, praise him for the gift of salvation, and look expectantly to his second coming.

Customary Palm Sunday observances include the waving of palm branches in procession, the blessing of palms, and the making of small crosses with palm fronds.

Palm Sunday also marks the beginning of Holy Week, a solemn week focusing on the final days of Jesus Christ's life. Holy Week culminates on Easter Sunday, the most important holiday in Christianity.