One ancient story involving palm branches that many people still know today is the story that became Palm Sunday in the Christian religion. In that story, as summarized by Learn Religions, Jesus Christ went to Jerusalem for the observance of Passover, a major Jewish holiday.
By then, Jesus was becoming well known for his ministry. Upon his arrival, a crowd greeted him with great excitement, waving palm branches.
This idea to wave palm branches did not just come out of nowhere, though. Palm branches were already well known as a symbol of victory in Greek and Roman culture.
History of palm branch symbolism
Christianity developed amidst Greek and Roman culture, where the association of palm branches with victory was already strong. Many early Christians also started out as Jewish, and Christian.net notes that palm branches were used in Jewish observances such as the Feast of Tabernacles, which celebrated freedom from those who had enslaved the Jewish people in the past.
Britannica reports that Nike, the ancient Greek goddess of victory, was often depicted holding a palm branch. When Rome conquered that territory shortly before the time of Jesus Christ, as described by Lumen Learning, the Romans adopted many of the Greek gods, though they often changed the names. Nike became Victoria, closer to our current word “victory.” She kept her palm branch.
Both Nike and Victoria were depicted with palm branches on coins, so this connection would have been known to the early followers of Jesus. When they waved palm branches at Jesus, they were displaying a clear message that they thought he was victorious.
Unfortunately, this dramatic display attracted unwelcome attention from the authorities, who did not want a rebellious and disruptive figure who threatened their power to be seen as victorious. This led to the public execution of Jesus only a few days later. However, as the Christian story of Easter goes, Jesus was resurrected on the third day after his crucifixion.
Palm Sunday is therefore included in the Christian observances leading up to Easter, and some Christian churches today use real palm branches in their celebration of Palm Sunday. The palm branches now signify the victory of Jesus over death.
What else do palm branches symbolize?
The Arab Weekly reports that the date palm tree was added to UNESCO’s list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2019.
This change was made at the nomination of 14 Middle Eastern countries on the grounds that the date palm has long been associated with prosperity and fertility in the Arab world.
This is in part because the date palm is the signature tree of desert oases, which alerted people to the presence of enough water to live on, thereby aiding human survival in a harsh environment.
The date palm is not the only variety of palm tree. Another well-known variety is the coconut palm. As is also the case for coconut dream symbolism, the coconut palm can be used to suggest a tropical island paradise.