Ash Wednesday 2023: What’s the history of the day and how is it observed in Christianity?

A worshipper has a cross drawn in ash on her forehead for Ash Wednesday (Ted Alijibe / AFP / Getty Images )
A worshipper has a cross drawn in ash on her forehead for Ash Wednesday (Ted Alijibe / AFP / Getty Images )

If you are giving up something for Lent, then you need to know about Ash Wednesday - the day that marks the official beginning of this repentant period in the Christian calendar.

Ash Wednesday is observed by many sectors of Western Christianity - including Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, and Methodists - and the traditions associated with the day span back centuries.

Here we explain everything that you need to know about Ash Wednesday.


What date is Ash Wednesday?

This year, Ash Wednesday falls on February 22.

It always occurs 46 days before Easter Sunday, which marks the end of Lent. Because Easter is a moveable feast, the date of Ash Wednesday also shifts annually.

Easter Sunday itself falls on the Sunday following the first full moon after Spring Equinox, which this year will fall on April 9.

Ash Wednesday, on the other hand, always falls on the day immediately following Shrove Tuesday - or Pancake Day, as it is more commonly known.

What is the history of the day?

While Shrove Tuesday entails the eating up of rich foods - like sugar, eggs and butter - in time for Lent, Ash Wednesday marks the official beginning of this 40-day period of abstinence.

Christians traditionally abstain from foods such as meat and dairy over Lent, although this has now extended into people giving up some of their favourite things, like chocolate, or trying to give up bad habits.

These sacrifices are meant to reflect the 40 days and 40 nights that Jesus spent fasting in the Judean Desert, according to the Bible.

How is it marked in Christianity?

Palm Sunday crosses (Pixabay)
Palm Sunday crosses (Pixabay)

Christians often have ash crosses drawn on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday. Sometimes ash is also sprinkled over their heads during church services, but both practises are a sign of repentance.

The ashes used on Ash Wednesday are made up of the palm leaves used in the previous year's Palm Sunday service.

Palm Sunday itself is celebrated on the Sunday before Easter, and commemorates Jesus's entry into Jerusalem before his crucifixion. Palm leaves are used in the service because it is claimed that people laid palm branches on the ground in front of Jesus as he rode into the city.

The ash used on Ash Wednesday is made by burning these palm leaves and mixing them with either Holy Water or olive oil.

The mixture is then painted onto the heads of worshippers whilst a member of the clergy says either: “Remember that you are guest, and to dust you shall return”, or “Repent and believe in the gospel”.

These words are based on those spoken to Adam and Eve in the Bible after their sin and, as such, the ritual is intended to remind worshippers of their sinfulness whilst acting as a sign of repentance ahead of Lent.