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A woman with a ash crucifix on her forehead

'Remember that you are dust': The history of Ash Wednesday

The ashes symbolise both death and repentance;

Ash Wednesday is an important date in the calendar for millions of Christians as it marks the beginning of Lent and falls 46 days before Easter Sunday. Below we explore the history and significance of Ash Wednesday.

When is Ash Wednesday?

Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent. Lent is a 40-day period of fasting and repentance for Christians. In 2023 it falls on 22nd February and is the beginning of 40 days of fasting, reflection and repentance for millions of Christians. Lent requires believers set aside time every year to recognise the period and its connection to Jesus Christ and his time in the wilderness.

The history of lent and Ash Wednesday

The history and beginnings of Lent are not fully documented anywhere. Most Christians believe it has been observed since the 4th century of the Common Era. It became even more commonplace when Christianity’s influence grew, and by the end of this century, most people agree that Lent and Easter we observed throughout most of the Christian world.

Lent is an observation of the experiences of Christ in the wilderness. Christian people choose to observe 40 days of fasting and repentance to remember Christ’s experiences and learn from what he went through. It is an opportunity to focus on his life and sacrifice and leads to the Easter period that focuses on his resurrection.

The significance of receiving the ashes

Ashes have great significance in Christianity. In the context of Ash Wednesday, believers visit their church or a dedicated Ash Wednesday ceremony and receive the ashes. The priest places ashes on the worshipper’s foreheads in the shape of a cross and says: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust, you shall return.”

The ashes symbolise both death and repentance; it is a period for repenting sins. The ashes show the worshipper belongs to Jesus Christ and is mourning for their sins as Jesus did when he gave his life on the cross. Wearing ashes on the forehead is a tradition of repentance that comes from the Old Testament but is still observed around the world every year. Ash Wednesday is a traditional event in the build-up to Easter and marks the beginning of Lent.

Top Facts about Ash Wednesday

Here are some of the most interesting facts about Ash Wednesday.

1. Ash Wednesday is not celebrated in all Christian communities

Ash Wednesday is an integral celebration in Catholicism and some other Christian sects, including Baptists, Presbyterians and Methodists. However, it is not part of all Christian believers' celebrations. You will not find Ash Wednesday services in churches for Mormons or Pentecostal Christians, and some other smaller groups.

2. Ash Wednesday is a surprisingly eco-friendly celebration

Many churches work to ensure they keep their waste to a minimum, and the ashes used on Ash Wednesday are usually recycled from other celebrations earlier in the year. Most commonly, church leaders will save the palm fronds handed out on Palm Sunday and burn them to make the ashes for the next year’s Ash Wednesday celebrations in 11 months.

3. Ash Wednesday celebrations have a Halloween feel in Iceland

All around the world, different cultures celebrate in different ways. In Iceland, Lent and Ash Wednesday is considered a real time of celebration as well as reflection. Usually, the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday is a day of indulgence and revery (and pancakes!). On the first day of Lent, Iceland celebrates Öskudagur. Öskudagur is similar to Halloween as children dress up in costumes and knock on neighbours' doors while singing songs in exchange for sweet treats. There is even a more mischievous side to the celebrations as children traditionally pin “ash bags” to their friends’ backs when they aren’t looking.

4. Ash Wednesday is often a day of fasting

Lent is considered a fasting period though it obviously does not mean believers abstain from all food. Instead, they may stop eating a favourite food or similar. Ash Wednesday, however, is often considered a day of fasting, and believers will limit their food intake across the day. Christians are advised to limit themselves to one whole meal plus two smaller deals throughout the day and these meals should not add up to a meal they would eat on a normal day. Christians usually avoid eating any meat as they would on Fridays throughout Lent.