Ash Wednesday and Lent 2019: Why we use 40 days to test our willpower

Juliet Eysenck
A churchgoer receives a cross of ashes painted on her forehead from a priest during Ash Wednesday Mass at Westminster Cathedral - Getty Images

While it may still feel like we are in the cold, gloomy depths of winter, the days are slowly getting longer heralding the imminent arrival of spring.

Food is set to occupy our minds for the following few months, with Shrove Tuesday, Lent and Easter around the corner. But how is the fasting season of Lent intrinsically linked to spring - and why do we use the 40 days to test our willpower?

Here is everything you need to know about the Christian period, from all the key dates, to the best things to give up.

When is Ash Wednesday 2019?

Ash Wednesday, which marks the start of Lent in the Christian calendar, has been observed by Britons for centuries. Its exact date changes every year, because it is determined by the dates of Easter. But it is always the day after Shrove Tuesday, or Pancake Day, and it always falls in February or March. This year, it is on March 6.

In 2016, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, suggested that Easter should fall on the same date each year. The plan, which would schedule the Christian festival on the same Sunday each year, was welcomed by parents and schools but angered some traditionalists.

At present, Easter falls on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox around March 21. This means it can fall on any Sunday between March 22 and April 25. Archbishop Welby said that Easter should most likely be fixed for the second or third Sunday of April.

What is Ash Wednesday?

The name Ash Wednesday comes from the practice of either marking a cross on a church-goer's forehead with ash, or sprinkling ash on their forehead, which is believed to have been ritualized by Pope Urban II as far back as 1091.

Both the Catholic and Methodist churches use the ashes of palm branches blessed at the previous year's Palm Sunday service, while the Church of England say the ashes 'may be made' from the previous year's ashes.

As the ash is placed on the church-goer's forehead, traditionally the words 'Repent, and believe in the Gospel' or 'Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return' are said.

Sometimes, the mark is left on the forehead to show that they carry the sign of the cross into the world. At other services, the ashes are washed off as a sign that the worshipper has been cleansed of their sins.

Often the colour purple is used in churches throughout Lent. Associated with mourning, and therefore the suffering of the crucifixion, it can often be seen on drapes and altar frontals. The colour is also symbolic of royalty and celebrates the resurrection and sovereignty.

When does Lent 2019 start and end this year?

As Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, the date of the Christian observance changes every year, determined by the March equinox and the celebration of Easter. 

This year, the fasting season begins on Wednesday, March 6, concluding on Saturday, April 20, the Saturday preceding Easter Sunday. While this totals 46 days, the six Sundays are not counted as fast days, due to the Christian calendar assigning this particular day of the week for feasts.

The origins of Lent

Ash Wednesday marks the first day of Lent, a period of 40 days (excluding Sundays) which comes before Easter in the Christian calendar. This year, Easter falls on Sunday, April 21.

Christians who observe Lent use it as a time for prayer and penance. By observing Lent, Christians are remembering the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, who withdrew into the wilderness and fasted for 40 days.

Traditionally, pancakes are eaten on the day before Ash Wednesday to use up rich, indulgent foods like eggs and milk before the 40-day fasting season of Lent begins. 

The English word Lent has no connection to the practice of fasting: it is in fact a shortened form of the Old English word 'lencten', meaning 'spring season'.

Linked to the Old Germanic root word 'laŋgo-',  which means 'long', many believe the word Lent is related to the lengthening of days over the season. In fact, the Anglo Saxon name for March - the month Lent usually falls in - was 'lenctentid', which means 'springtide'.

However as the fasting season that precedes Easter always takes place in the spring, the word Lent soon came to be linked intrinsically to 40 days of penance.

Why do people give things up for Lent?

Some people fast for the whole period of Lent, as a reflection of Jesus's sacrifice in the Judean desert. Some Christians will fast only on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, the Friday before Easter Sunday.

However, many people, even those who do not go to church, choose to give up a particular vice, such as their favourite food, alcohol or smoking for the period of Lent. Quitting sugar or cutting down on excessive social media use and screen time are other popular detox options.

Instead of giving up chocolate, fizzy drinks or chips, many others use Lent as a period of time to help others. Hundreds of people take part in the Lenten Positive Acts Challenge, as another way to show praise for God.

Participants perform one positive act for each of the days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. These 'positive acts' can include calling up someone who is alone, donating to a worth cause, clearing up after dinner and letting someone go ahead of you in a supermarket queue.

If you're looking to give up something for Lent this year, we've selected some of the best and most common things to give up, from coffee, pizza and fizzy drinks, to procrastination, complaining and internet use.

How else is Ash Wednesday observed?

In Ashbourne, Derbyshire, players usually spend Ash Wednesday concluding the annual Royal Shrovetide football match. The two-day event, which kicks off on Shrove Tuesday, pits the Up'ards against the Down'ards in an attempt to score in goals set three miles apart in the Peak District town.

Competitors reach for the ball during the annual Royal Shrovetide Football Match in Ashbourne Credit:  AFP/Getty Images

Royal Shrovetide Football has been played in Ashbourne almost every year since the 17th Century.

In southern Germany, it is traditional for people to wash their wallets in fountains to bring good fortune on Ash Wednesday. It is said that anyone who washes their wallet will never see it empty.

In Iceland, children dress up in costumes on Ash Wednesday and sing in shops in return for sweets and treats.

Traditionally, children collected ash into small bags and then were challenged to pin them onto other people's clothing without them noticing.

Fasting in other religions

Every year, many of the world's 1.6 billion Muslims observe Ramadan, the annual period of fasting, prayer and giving to charity.

Muslims believe that the Prophet Mohammed received the final part of a series of revelations from God, which became the Koran, during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, the month of Ramadan.

Followers mark this, the holiest month of the year, with a period of self-denial and purification. Those observing the fast must abstain from all food or drink – as well as smoking and sex – between sunrise and sundown for a month.

This year, Ramadan starts on May 5 and continues for 30 days until June 4.