Christians may not get any closer to heaven by folding the palm reeds given out in the churches of some denominations this Palm Sunday, but many will create for themselves a symbol they can display to remind them of God.
And have some fun while they're doing it.
"It's popular with Italians, but I think you'd find it in Catholic culture everywhere," said the Rev. Rich Futie, pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Stamford, about the cross-making practice."Italians certainly have had a great tradition of doing it, making it a sign of faith. Some can be quite artistic."
The practice is also popular in Greece and Spain, said Msgr. Stephen DiGiovanni, pastor of the Basilica of St. John the Evangelist in Stamford.
Greek Orthodox Churches follow the practice, as do some Episcopal churches. Karin Hamilton, director of communication and media for the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut, said she's seen some Episcopalian palm crosses at some of the churches.
The crosses are made by folding two reeds in ways that essentially work like knots. No glue, tacks or other clamping or adhesives are used—just folding and, at the end, tucking extra ends into the middle, or cutting them off with scissors. Like a good knot, a tightly folded cross can be quite sturdy and hold up well over time.
The Rev. Greg Markey, pastor of St. Mary's Church in Norwalk, said the making of palm crosses isn't any kind of requirement or obligation of the Roman Catholic faith, or even an important part of it. "It's just something people do."
People often keep them for a year, until the next Palm Sunday, and sometimes have one in each room of their homes, Markey said.
"It's a sacramental—something that helps us to drive toward the sacred. Many other things are sacramentals, too. That's why we bless the palms on Sunday.... They're very much like holy cards we have in our homes and blessed medals."
In the Roman Catholic Church, palms are blessed as the priest begins the Mass with the procession to the altar, Markey said. The significance of palms "goes back to the Old Testament," he said. "Jews would wave palms in the air as part of certain festivals or as a sign of joy.
Christ proclaimed king
When Christ entered Jerusalem and was publicly proclaimed a 'king,' palms were placed before the donkey that he rode in on, Markey said.
"People will keep them in their homes as signs of the holy in their lives, and many will take them to the cemetery also to place them on graves," Futie said.
"They're properly disposed of by either burning them or burying them," Futie said, something that applies to all palm reeds brought home from Palm Sunday, not just those made into crosses.
"It's quite common in parishes that the priest will say, 'Please bring them in,'—maybe the week before Ash Wednesday—and they'll be burned for the ashes used that day, and the ashes become a sacramental, too," Futie said.
That's just what St. Mary's does, Markey said. "That's a traditional way of doing it, so there's a whole cycle there."
Editor's note: This article originally was published just before Palm Sunday in 2011. Anthony Gurliacci, in the accompanying video, is the father of David Gurliacci (then patch editor in Norwalk, now in Darien), who wrote this article and took the video.