Ash Wednesday is definitely one of the lesser-known Christian holidays. (Although “holiday” doesn’t seem like the right term for it—it’s certainly not a celebratory occasion.) But even if you don’t partake, you’re still probably aware when it’s Ash Wednesday, since its eponymous custom is far from subtle. Catholics and many other Christians attend a mass, at the end of which the priest will bless each of them by applying ashes to their foreheads in the shape of a cross. In 2020, Ash Wednesday is February 26. Even if you don’t get ashes yourself on that day, you’ll likely see some of the people around you with smudged black crosses on their foreheads.
Ash Wednesday marks the start of Lent, the solemn 40-day period of repentance and fasting that precedes Easter. The symbolic purpose of the ashes is twofold. They represent humans’ mortality and lowliness compared to God, while also representing mourning and sorrow for your sins. And if you get them, you’ll most likely hear the priest say one of two traditional blessings—“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” or “Repent and believe in the Gospel”—that convey this symbolism. Learn about another solemn Easter-adjacent observance with these facts you never knew about Good Friday.
Even if you don’t attend mass on Ash Wednesday, you may have pondered the source of those abundant ashes. Ashes are made from burning and destruction, so even without their strong association with human remains, they’re not generally thought of as a pleasant substance. This, of course, fits with the solemnity of the occasion. But it’s understandable if a thought along the lines of, “What exactly was burned to produce these ashes?” has crossed your mind.
Don’t worry—it’s nothing particularly icky or freaky. The ashes for Ash Wednesday come from burning the palms from the preceding year’s Palm Sunday. On Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter, parishioners are given palm fronds to represent the fronds that worshippers waved as Christ returned to Jerusalem for the final time before his death. The churches then usually keep the palm fronds throughout the following year, burning them the day before Ash Wednesday.
So while the ashes certainly do represent death, their use provides last year’s old palms with something of a second life. Next, find out the history and myths behind more Easter symbols and traditions.