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In the Western Christian calendar, Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent and occurs forty-six days (forty days not counting Sundays) before Easter. It is a moveable feast, falling on a different date each year because it is dependent on the date of Easter. It can occur as early as 4 February or as late as 10 March.

Ash Wednesday gets its name from the practice of placing ashes on the foreheads of the faithful as a sign of repentance. The ashes used are gathered after the Palm Crosses from the previous year's Palm Sunday are burned. In the liturgical practice of some churches, the ashes are mixed with the Oil of the Catechumens (one of the sacred oils used to anoint those about to be baptized), though some churches use ordinary oil. This paste is used by the minister who presides at the service to make the sign of the cross, first upon his or her own forehead and then on those of congregants. The minister recites the words: "Remember (O man) that you are dust, and to dust you shall return", or "Repent, and believe the Gospel."


At Mass and services of worship on this day, ashes are imposed on the foreheads of the faithful (or on the tonsure spots, in the case of some clergy). The priest, minister, or in some cases officiating layperson, marks the forehead of each participant with black ashes in the shape of a cross, which the worshipper traditionally retains until it wears off. The act echoes the ancient Near Eastern tradition of throwing ashes over one's head to signify repentance before God (as related in the Bible). The priest or minister says one of the following when applying the ashes:

The ashes used in the service of worship or Mass are sacramentals, not a sacrament. The ashes are blessed according to various rites proper to each liturgical tradition, sometimes involving the use of Holy Water. In some churches they are mixed with light amounts of water or olive oil, which serve as a fixative.

In most liturgies for Ash Wednesday, the Penitential psalms are read; Psalm 51 (LXX Psalm 50) is especially associated with this day. The service also often includes a corporate confession rite.

In some of the free church liturgical traditions, other practices are sometimes added or substituted, as other ways of symbolizing the confession and penitence of the day. For example, in one common variation, small cards are distributed to the congregation on which people are invited to write a sin they wish to confess. These small cards are brought forth to the altar table where they are burned.

In the Roman Catholic Church, ashes, being sacramentals, may be given to any Christian, as opposed to Catholic sacraments, which are generally reserved for church members, except in cases of grave necessity. Similarly, in most other Christian denominations ashes may be received by all who profess the Christian faith and are baptized.

In the Roman Catholic Church, Ash Wednesday is observed by fasting, abstinence from meat, and repentance—a day of contemplating one's transgressions. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer also designates Ash Wednesday as a day of fasting. In other Christian denominations these practices are optional, with the main focus being on repentance. On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, Roman Catholics between the ages of 18 and 59 are permitted to consume only one full meal, which may be supplemented by two smaller meals, which together should not equal the full meal. Some Roman Catholics will go beyond the minimum obligations demanded by the Church and undertake a complete fast or a bread and water fast. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are also days of abstinence from meat (for those Catholics age 14 and over), as are all Fridays in Lent. Some Roman Catholics continue fasting during the whole of Lent, as was the Church's traditional requirement, concluding only after the celebration of the Easter Vigil.

As the first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday comes the day after Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), the last day of the Carnival season.

Ash Wednesday in Australia is a solemn day as one of Australia's deadliest bushfires coincidentally started burning on Ash Wednesday.

Biblical significance

Ash Wednesday is a day of repentance and it marks the beginning of Lent. Ashes were used in ancient times, according to the Bible, to express mourning. Dusting oneself with ashes was the penitent's way of expressing sorrow for sins and faults. An ancient example of one expressing one's penitence is found in Job . Job says to God: "I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes." (vv. 5-6, KJV) Other examples are found in several other books of the Bible including, Numbers , , Jonah , Matthew , and Luke , and Hebrews . Ezekiel 9 also speaks of a linen-clad messenger marking the forehead of the city inhabitants that have sorrow over the sins of the people. All those without the mark are destroyed.

It marks the start of a forty day period analogous to the separation of Jesus in the desert to fast and pray. During this time he was tempted. , , and .

Theatre program from Ash Wednesday 1872
In Victorian England, theatres refrained from presenting costumed shows on Ash Wednesday, so they provided other entertainments, such as those shown on the program at right, from 14 February 1872 at the Gaiety Theatre, Londonmarker.


Ash Wednesday is a moveable feast, occurring 46 days before Easter. It fell on 6 February in 2008 and on 25 February in 2009. In future years Ash Wednesday will occur on these dates:

  • 2010 - 17 February
  • 2011 - 9 March
  • 2012 - 22 February
  • 2013 - 13 February
  • 2014 - 5 March
  • 2015 - 18 February
  • 2016 - 10 February
  • 2017 - 1 March
  • 2018 - 14 February
  • 2019 - 6 March

Historical notes: The earliest date Ash Wednesday can occur is 4 February (in a common year with Easter on 22 March), which happened in 1573, 1668, 1761 and 1818. The latest date is 10 March (when Easter Day falls on 25 April) which occurred in 1546, 1641, 1736, 1886 and 1943. Ash Wednesday has never occurred on Leap Year Day (29 February), and it will not occur as such until 2096. The only other years of the third millennium that will have Ash Wednesday on 29 February are 2688, 2840, and 2992. (Ash Wednesday falls on 29 February only if Easter is on 15 April in a leap year.)

Denominations observing Ash Wednesday

These Christian denominations are among those that mark Ash Wednesday by holding a service of worship or Mass:

The Eastern Orthodox Church does not in general observe Ash Wednesday; instead, Orthodox Great Lent begins on Clean Monday. There are, however, a relatively small number of Orthodox Christians who follow the Western Rite; these do observe Ash Wednesday, although often on a different day from the previously-mentioned denominations, as its date is determined from the Orthodox calculation of Pascha, which may be as much as a month later than the Western observance of Easter.

National No Smoking Day

In the Republic of Irelandmarker, Ash Wednesday is National No Smoking Day. The date was chosen because quitting smoking ties in with giving up luxury for Lent. In the United Kingdommarker, No Smoking Day was held for the first time on Ash Wednesday 1984, but is now fixed as the second Wednesday in March.

See also


  1. This ties the beginning of Lent with its original purpose: the final preparation of Catechumens for baptism.
  2. Real Live Preacher: Ash Wednesday
  3. Psalm 51 is the Ash Wednesday reading in both the Revised Common Lectionary and The Roman Catholic Lectionary.
  4. Code of Canon Law, canon 1170
  5. 1983 Code of Canon Law, canon 844
  6. The origin of the name "carnival" is disputed. One theory states that the word comes from the Late Latin expression carne vale, which means "farewell to meat", signifying that those were the last days when one could eat meat before the fasting of Lent. Other sources, however, suggest that the name comes from the Italian carne levare or similar expression, meaning "to remove meat", since meat is prohibited during Lent. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word "Carnival" is derived from Latin carnem levare (removal of the meat) or carnem laxare (leaving the meat).
  7. Written Answers. - Cigarette Smoking. Dáil Éireann - Volume 475 - 18 February 1997
  8. Chronic long-term costs of COPD, Dr Jarlath Healy, Irish Medical Times, 2008
  9. Ban on smoking in cars gets Minister's support Alison Healy, The Irish Times, 2009
  10. 20% of smokers light up around their children every day Claire O’Sullivan, Irish Examiner, 2006
  11. The History of No Smoking Day, No Smoking Day website
  12. FAQ: When is No Smoking Day 2010?, No Smoking Day website

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