THIS weekend Palm Sunday signals the start of Holy Week as Easter approaches. In the church calendar it is the sixth Sunday in Lent, celebrating Christ's entry into Jerusalem.
The name comes from the palm fronds the waiting crowds waved to welcome Jesus.
Today crosses of palm leaves are still made and given to Palm Sunday congregations.
But, in earlier times, as the palm isn't native to Britain, our forebears used sprigs of Sallow or "Pussy Willow". Branches of Hazel and Common Willow were also used, as were daffodils, commonly known as "Lenten Lilies".
As recently as the early 20th century, it was common for people to "go a-palming", scouring the nearest patch of greenery to gather willow and spring flowers.
These were used to decorate the church, to make Palm Sunday crosses, or worn as buttonholes on the day.
After the church service the congregation took them home to hang over the fireplace or from the rafters. According to popular belief, they were supposed to protect homes from lightning strikes.
In the Midlands and along the Welsh borders the day was known as "Flowering Sunday". It seems our forebears regarded the day as a sort of practice run for Easter Sunday.
Lent was nearly over and it was a chance to celebrate. Writing in 1883, Charlotte Burne describes a scene in nearby Shropshire: "Albrighton churchyard yearly presents a touching sight on Palm Sunday when all the graves are decked with daffodils and other flowers gathered in the woods and meadows around Boscobel and Whiteladies."
And even though Lent hadn't quite ended there were a few treats to be had. Some churches gave out small buns called "pax cakes" – or peace cakes – and the custom still survives in parts of Herefordshire.
In many parts of the country old pagan customs re-surfaced. Traditionally Palm Sunday was one of several days throughout the year when people visited holy wells, decorating them with greenery or colourful rags.
It was thought that such offerings would persuade the water sprites to keep the water supply constant and pure.
Another Palm Sunday custom involved children collecting the well or spring water and mixing it with sugar, sweets or pieces of liquorice.
A similar custom was still alive in Oxfordshire in 1929, as this writer records: "On Palm Sunday, which is often referred to as Spanish Sunday, an old custom still survives.
"Just over the boundary, in the parish of Wilcote, is an old well of beautiful. clear water ... It is called the Lady's Well, and on Palm Sunday the girls go there and take bottles with Spanish Juice (liquorice), fill the bottles, walk round the well, and drink."
In the Black Country, people dropped shiny pins and coins into the many wells across the region. In particular, the Lady Well on Orton Ridge, near Wombourne, was a popular Sunday picnic place for generations of Wulfrunians.
Other Palm Sunday sweet treats were figs and dates. Hence "Fig Sunday" was another nickname for the day. According to legend, on his journey to Jerusalem, Christ had wanted to eat some fresh figs. But, it was the wrong season, none were available, and he is said to have cursed the fig tree.
Which is how, apparently, the Lenten custom of eating figs on Palm Sunday arose.
Across the country people ate regional dishes containing figs and dates. These were often called "fig-sue".
Despite these fruits being quite difficult to obtain and fairly expensive, there are many old recipes for fig pies and puddings.
In 1856, the journal, Notes and Queries, records that in Staffordshire: "The fig-pies are made of dry figs, sugar, treacle, spice etc."
And, with a nod to the ingredients' cost, the writer adds: "They are rather too luscious for those who are not to the manner born."
Ignoring such snobbery ordinary folk adapted the recipes to suit their budget.
There are reports of people enjoying fig pudding on Palm Sunday from as recently as 1950.
A little earlier, Florence White's book, Good Things in England (1932), gives a traditional Worcestershire recipe:
Mrs Hart's Fig Pudding
8oz breadcrumbs; 8oz figs; 8oz moist sugar; 6oz suet; half a nutmeg; 2 eggs; wine sauce. Time to boil: 4 hours. 1) Mince the figs very small; 2) Mince the suet very fine; 3) Mix breadcrumbs, figs, sugar, suet, nutmeg, all together very well; 4) Moisten with the eggs which should first be well beaten; 5) Put in a greased mould or basin, cover well with greased paper and steam for four and a half hours; 6) Turn out and serve with wine sauce.
Black Country folk also made puddings from figs and dates at this time of year. In her book, A Feast of Memories: Black Country Food and Life at the Turn of the Century (Westwood Press, 1986), Marjorie Cashmore includes a recipe for:
Baked Fig Roll
For this recipe, Marjorie recommends using potato pastry which she says is suitable "for either savoury pies, or fruit pies and tarts."
3oz mashed potato
Quarter tsp baking powder
Quarter tsp salt
"Sieve the salt and baking powder into the flour, tub in the lard, add the mashed potatoes and mix in lightly with cold water to a stiff dough.
For the filling you'll need:
8oz dried figs
A little nutmeg
"Chop the figs and put them into a basin, cover with boiling water. Allow to stand for about 20 minutes, then pour off the water. Add the nutmeg and mash with a fork. Prepare the pastry and roll into an oblong. Moisten the edges and spread the fig filling to within an inch of the edge. Roll up and secure the ends. Bake on a greased baking sheet in a hot oven for about 45 minutes. Serve with custard."
No mention of fripperies like wine sauce (whatever that was), here! Marjorie also includes another pudding that was no doubt a winner on Palm Sunday:
Date and Apple Pie
8oz dates (stoned)
1lb cooking apples
"Wash the dates, put them into a basin, cover with boiling water and soak for one hour. Strain, then chop the dates and core and slice the apples. Fill a pie dish, cover with pastry and bake in moderately hot oven for about 45 minutes."
In the traditional calendar the Sunday preceding Palm Sunday was called Passion Sunday.
This day also had its own customs, including eating traditional dishes made from Maple peas or Carlins – what we call Grey Pays in the Black Country. Hence the day's other name, "Carlin Sunday" Over time, Palm Sunday took on the Passion Sunday dishes of pea soup and pease pudding.
Our forebears must have had cast iron constitutions, devouring all those figs, dates and grey pays!