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The Garden Gate: Palms continue to hold great symbolism

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By Ellen Probert Williamson

Many are the legends about palm trees.

One says that Jesus commanded a palm tree to bend down so He could pick dates for his mother, and He promised to bless it. When He entered Jerusalem in triumph, it was a palm branch in His hand as the people cried, “Hosannah.”

As we come to the observance of Palm Sunday with its jubilant atmosphere of “Hosannah and welcome,” it is interesting to note that the waving of palm branches in processions is a custom of great antiquity and significance.

It seems to have originated at the time of the restoration of the temple by Judas Maccabaeus. The Jewish continue it to this day at the Feast of the Tabernacle. Christians continue it with Palm Sunday.

The palm leaf, bound by myrtle on the left and citron on the right, was the triple badge of desert life as it was carried by Jews at the Feast of the Tabernacle.

Very early, the palm became the symbol of Palestine. To commemorate Titus’ destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., Roman Emperor Vespasian issued a coin depicting a weeping woman sitting beneath a palm tree.

The palm tree of Biblical accounts is the date palm. From the time of Solomon’s temple rebuilding and onward, it was a favorite subject for sculpture and architecture decoration.

It was characteristic of Egypt and Palestine at the time, and both used the immense leaves of the palm in ceremonial and triumphal occasions of rejoicing.

The great leaves were used to thatch roofs and give solidity to reed fences. Mats, baskets and dishes are still made of them.

Small leaves of palm are much used as dusters and brushes. The wood is used for timber in building, and rope is still made from the fibers.

The fruit of the palm grows in heavy clusters that weigh from 20-50 pounds. It’s the chief article of food for innumerable tribes of Arabia and Northern Africa. Date kernels or seeds are ground up to make food for camels, cows and sheep. It’s said to be more nutritious than grain.

The ancients made an alcoholic liquor from the sap of palm trees. This, rather than wine, is thought to be the “strong drink” alluded to in the Bible.

Date seeds are often dyed and strung as beads for necklaces and rosaries.

The honey often referred to in both Hebrew writings and the Bible is thought to be a sweet substance made from the sap of palm trees. This would seem reasonable — bees are mentioned only four times in the Bible, and honey is mentioned 49 times.

Ancient Greek historians Herodotus and Strabo and Roman historian Pliny all mention that both liquor and honey were made from the date palm. The Arabs have a saying that there are as many uses for palms as there are dates in the year.

The name Phoenicia means land of palms. Some of the ancient coins of Tyre and Sidon show a palm tree figure.

In classic times, the date palm symbolized worldly riches, procreation, victory, celebration and light.

It was dedicated to Apollo, the god of masculine beauty, youth, poetry, music and wisdom. Moslems believe the palm tree was created by Mohammed.

In both ancient and medieval times, angels were believed to take palm branches conveying souls to heaven. The palm branch became a symbol of martyrdom. On All Souls Day, palm leaves were burned, and the smoke soaring upward was seen as proof that souls were carried to heaven.

In some countries, tradition still says the palm ­— not the apple or fig — was the “tree of knowledge” in the Garden of Eden.

A palm tree is depicted in the state seal of South Carolina.

Palm trees were thought in medieval times to have the power to prevent sunstroke, avert lightning strikes, cure fevers and drive away mice and fleas.

The date palm in classic times symbolized worldly riches, victory and light, and procreation.

It has been estimated that about 40 million palm branches are sold annually in the United States for Palm Sunday services. Most churches will save the branches for burning to create ashes for next year’s Ash Wednesday observances.

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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.