Easter holiday – for many the second word is the most important, and the first one is about chocolate, eggs, chocolate eggs, various animals and the colour yellow, about traditions. For others, the holy week starts today, on Palm Sunday.
In France, Palm Sunday is called Branch Sunday, Dimanche des Rameaux. On this day, Catholics bring branches of various kinds to church to be blessed; box tree branches, laurels, palms, olives, all depending on the region. Besides being common, the box tree has the advantage that it’s evergreen, and thus represents eternity. In the PACA region, Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, the beautiful, silver green olive branches are dominant.
The reason for this branch extravaganza is of course that on this day, Jesus returned in triumph to Jerusalem and the crowd had covered the ground with green branches to greet him as he entered town.The full name for this day is Dimanche des Rameaux et de la Passion, remembering the last sufferings of Jesus – the passion of Christ.
Once the branches have been blessed, held up high to the intense smell of incense, the congregation forms a procession behind the priests dressed in red for blood and white for resurrection and joy, and marches towards Easter as God’s people following Christ. The branches are then often taken home and placed by a cross or a crucifix, blessing the home. Traditionally, they stay there until Ash Wednesday when they are taken back to church to be burned.
In tiny Villefranche-sur-Mer east of Nice, the congregation usually gathers on the church square where the priest will stand by the fountain to bless their branches, and his solemn words and the heavy incense will creep in through open windows. Usually this is a time for open windows, but this year it is pouring and the square is empty. The blessing takes place inside the church, and the church has open doors.
Colourful umbrellas hurry down the stairs to get to church in time. Some are even late, “on est au sud”, we are in the south. Under the umbrellas are mainly elderly people, but every once in a while there will be a young couple or a child holding on to his branches. The odd tourist on this rainy day is a curious bystander. As it happens, they’re an image of the population of the Old Town of Villefranche as a whole: Fewer and fewer as old people pass away, some young people staying, and tourists taking over but not necessarily taking part.
The old lady upstairs, of Italian origin as many others in Villefranche, offers to bring back branches to us once they have been blessed. It’s an offer you don’t turn down, crucifix or no crucifix.
Text and photos: Unni Holtedahl, Easter 2013