The white palms of Majorca (and Alicante)

It was Palm Sunday todat - Diumenge de Rams or Domingo de Ramos, depending on your local linguistic preference. Holy Week kicked off with the first of the processions and the blessings, restored after two years of Covid prohibition.

Integral to Holy Week though Palm Sunday now is, it had taken several centuries following events of the original Easter before the Palm Sunday procession caught on. It would appear that it originated in northern Italy around the start of the eighth century and proved to be that much of a hit that Rome soon gave it the official liturgical stamp of approval. Prior to palms, there had been a preference for olive branches, but Olive Sunday had been a relatively low-key event minus any blessing. Along with the introduction of the palm came the blessing as well.

It isn't known exactly how quickly the new Palm Sunday tradition spread to Spain, but by the second half of the ninth century it had been established, certainly in the town of Vic in the Barcelona province. It has had a palm market ever since 875, when they first celebrated Palm Sunday and when Wilfred the Hairy was scaring off the last of the Moorish interests in the Vic vicinity.

As the centuries moved on, Majorca came to play a key role in the Palm Sunday tradition of the Crown of Aragon. Palms of different varieties had long been exported to and planted in Majorca, but what particularly interested Majorca's regal rulers was the white palm, the one which, by then, had become central to the Palm Sunday procession.

Majorca, so it would seem, proved to be perfect for the growing of date palms in order to produce white (more yellowish white in fact) leaves. Quite what it was that made Majorca so special in this regard isn't entirely clear. But the fact was that the island became something of a centre for a type of palm growing that was specifically targeted at the Palm Sunday market.

By the fourteenth century, the export of white palms to the mainland was in full swing. Thanks to research into palms of Majorca in the late Middle Ages, we know that the royal household was acquiring palm fronds for Palm Sunday. In 1338 "the royal procurators paid one pound to the women Caterina and Fustereta, vendors of fruit, for two palm branches to be sent to the royal court in Perpignan for the day of the palm". In 1339, the royal buyers were back again and then in 1341 once more, and this time the order was larger. "The royal procurators paid one pound (lluira), fourteen shillings (sous) and ten pence (diners) to Pere Joan, a carpenter, for four palm branches to be sent to the royal court."

It looks as though Pere Joan may have got a raw deal. Going on 1338 prices, he should have expected at least two pounds for his four branches (albeit they may have not been as big as those purchased in 1338), but there again he was apparently regularly employed around the royal palace of Almudaina, so he probably had little cause to complain.

Palm-related export, not just of white palm branches but also dates and palm nuts, had in fact become very much a feature of Majorca's economy by the thirteenth century. In addition to Perpignan, sales were made to Barcelona, Valencia, Nice, Flanders and England.

But Majorca, for all that it had a flourishing white palm trade, was not to be as important as Elche in the province of Alicante (Valencia), which was also part of the Crown of Aragon. In Elche, records show that the white palm was being used for the Palm Sunday procession from at least 1371. In 1997, the Palm Sunday procession in Elche was declared a fiesta in the international tourist interest, Elche having the largest plantation of palm trees in Europe.

The process for ensuring the white palm end-product starts in June the previous year. The upper parts of the trees are tied and covered, the lack of sunlight prevents photosynthesis and the leaves grow straight and white. These are transformed into various shapes. There are various star styles, the long, braided "cadeneta" and the elaborate "margarita" bow. Alternatively, there is the simple, straight white palm, which is what is most commonly seen.

Why the fascination with white palms? All to do with the cult of the Virgin, it would seem, and Elche has pretty much cornered the market, even if in times past the city had some issues with pressing its claim. In 1429, some citizens of Elche were arrested for selling white palms in Valencia. That was a long time ago, as it was also a long time ago when Majorca had just as much claim as Elche.

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