Ash Wednesday is the Christian celebration of the first day of Lent, taking place after Shrove Tuesday, or Mardi Gras. Lent is a six week period of observance leading up to Easter. The actual date of Ash Wednesday varies, but takes place in February or March. Ash Wednesday marks the start of fasting and religious meditation during the season of Lent.
How it’s Celebrated
The most common way Christians celebrate is by going to church services, where blessings in the form of crosses made with ash on the observer’s forehead is supposed to remind them of the themes of Lent—forgiveness, mortality, and repentance. Many Christians fast and frequently pray, as the season is designated for internal reflection and spiritual wellbeing. They may evaluate the state of their spirituality. Another tradition includes giving up something for lent, whether it is meat, chocolate, television, or another pleasure to remind oneself of Jesus’s sacrifice. Observers also typically take part in charitable activity.
The 40 days of Lent commemorates the 40 days that Jesus is said to have spent fasting in the desert following his baptism. While there, Jesus resisted temptation by Satan. Some of the temptations include to be given kingdoms in exchange for worship of Satan, giving Jesus bread, or tempting Jesus to rely on angels to catch him after jumping off a cliff. The fasting and other rituals involved with Lent remind observers not only of their own mortality and repentance but of these temptations that Jesus endured, which is the origin of giving things up for Lent.
When the holiday was celebrated hundreds of years ago, it was a tradition to wear a sack cloth and repent while sitting in dirt and ashes, an act of humbling oneself.
Many different denominations celebrate Ash Wednesday with rituals, including Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, and Methodists. Traditionally, priests mark the foreheads of observers with ashes in the shape of the cross as a reminder of mortality and repentance. Many churches bless the ashes beforehand or involve Holy Water.
A Catholic tradition is to abstain from meat completely on Ash Wednesday and during Lent, or only on certain days, such as Fridays. Some Anglicans designate Ash Wednesday specifically for fasting. In Ireland, Ash Wednesday is a designated National No Smoking Day, to coincide with the abstinence theme of Lent.