Coconut palm…royal palm… date palm…coyol palm…uh, coyol palm?
WordWeb Online calls it a tropical American palm with edible nuts and yielding useful fiber. In some countries of Central America, especially Costa Rica and Honduras, it is known for the sweet liquid that flows inside its trunk and is extracted to drink as a 100 per cent natural liquor. Be careful, though, it’s said to be strong stuff, even lethal.
But the straight, tall tree that grows wild on Guatemala’s south coast has a higher purpose. It substitutes for the date palm common in Palestine for Palm Sunday celebrations that commemorate the triumphal entry of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem and, here in Guatemala, initiate the magnificent Holy Week traditions.
Coyol leaves are cut a week or so before—tricky business because of the many long, ominous spines on the branches. The narrow leaves are bundled and hauled to church plazas throughout the country, where they are looped, braided, twisted and woven into bouquets (photo). That wonderful Guatemalan creativity kicks in as artisans sit surrounded by piles of flowers, crosses, medallions, images and ribbons to trim and tuck and attach. Then the finished bouquets are sold for as little as Q3.
Worshippers lift the coyol bouquets to be blessed in the Sunday mass and take them home. Some are kept to be burned for the ash used on Ash Wednesday the following year.
Traces of coyol have been found in ancient Mayan sites, but it would be tough to determine when this tradition with the coyol leaves began in Guatemala. Fray Antonio de Remesal recorded the first Palm Sunday celebration in Guatemala in which the natives participated. The year was 1547. As told in Luis Luján Muñoz’s book, Semana Santa Tradicional en Guatemala (1982), “(the natives) enjoyed those holy ceremonies, it being the first time they saw them.”
Remesal writes that the first lent and Holy Week were not as peaceful as had been hoped “…because one Spanish neighbor thought that peace comes in drunkenness, but in the end it finished well.” Hmmm… Wonder if that Spanish neighbor discovered the coyol juice.