Back and forth, hither and yon – whether on my habitual trajectory between Touraine and Paris or further afield… destinations, encounters, events and observations I can’t resist sharing.

Touraine Tradition: Boxwood Sunday

April 18, 2011

In Catholic parishes where I attended mass before moving to Orbigny, Christmas and Easter services were the big draw, but in rural Touraine, it’s Palm Sunday that really fills the pews.  Considering it’s a lengthy service including the longest gospel reading of the year, I was amazed to see our typically sparsely filled church packed to  capacity with men, women and children clutching bunches of boxwood clippings.  Among the faces were avowed agnostics and vociferous anti-clerical types whom typically cross the threshold only for a funeral.   This wasn’t about an excuse for dressing up, since Sunday go-to-meeting preening isn’t something the French go for even on holidays, with the exception of a wedding.

I suspected the swell in attendance was linked to a primeval sentiment beyond piety – the power of ingrained tradition and superstition to overpower cynicism and skepticism.  But why boxwood instead of palm fronds?

In French, the feast is called Dimanche des Rameaux (Sunday of Branches). No mention of Palms.  Boxwood, or buis, is a hardy evergreen plant that requires little watering and thrives in the alkaline clay soil of the region.  You find it throughout Touraine, growing as a tree in the forest, a trimmed hedge or bush in cottage potagers, or sculpted into fantastic topiaries in chateaux gardens.   Thus it’s readily available, unlike palms imported from the southern Mediterranean.   In the UK and US, pre-blessed palms, typically woven into the shape of a cross, are distributed as congregants exit the church.  Here we hold up boxwood cuttings from our gardens (or a supply set out on a table by the entry of the church), as the priest walks up and down the aisles blessing the congregation with holy water.

A few years back, while out riding my horse, I came across a farmer and his wife on their knees planting a sprig of buis in the plowed earth at the corner of their field.  The spot is a local landmark known as Les Trois Croix, for three crosses erected at an intersection of four fields, where the boundary limits of three villages meet.  It’s also the highest point in the county, and seemed an apt setting for a ceremony with echoes of pagan ritual.  That was my aha moment and confirmed my hunch about the superstitious appeal of blessed buis.

Turns out, sprigs are planted in fields and vegetable gardens throughout the region, in the hope that they encourage a good crop and protect against infestation of pests or blight.   Some farmers keep a sprig tucked into the windshield visor of their tractor. In the pre automotive era, blessed buis was slipped under the bridle strap behind the ears of cart and plow horses. A sprig behind a crucifix hung above the marital bed is believed to promote fertility and fidelity and hanging it in a home wards off lightening in a storm.  During a particularly violent gale, some burn in the hearth, but the ashes are respectfully buried.

I’ve taken to placing a sprig in every bedroom in our home as well as in my office.  This year, just to be safe, I planted one in the corner of the potager.  As with last year’s palms, buis is traditionally burned at the start of the following Lent.  In our parish, a devout 89-year-old Polish born widow is responsible for burning blessed buis to provide the ashes used by our priest to mark foreheads of the faithful with cinders on Ash Wednesday.   A timeless organic cycle for a ritual intended to remind us of the transience of earthly life and the promise of transcendence.


April 19, 2011 at 3:52 am


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