Ash Wednesday is one of the most obvious religious festivals in Ireland - not as a public holiday (it isn't), but in the way you will encounter the signs in the streets. On people's faces. Especially the more active Catholics will sport a spot of ash on their foreheads, applied in rough cross form. Find out more ...
What is Ash Wednesday?
Generally speaking, Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent and follows on the heels of the pancake feast that is Shrove Tuesday.
Timed to occur forty-six days before Easter and tied to the Easter date, Ash Wednesday is a moveable feast. Earliest possible calendar date being February 4th, latest March 10th. It also marks the beginning of the Lent period which is roughly defined as forty days of fasting before Easter.
The apparent incongruity of a period lasting 40 days actually starting 46 days before it ends is explained by the church's policy, which excludes the six Sundays during Lent from the actual Lent fasting.
The historical development of Ash Wednesday includes the origin of the name - traditionally ashes are placed on the foreheads or heads during mass, serving as a reminder reminder of mortality as well as a sign of mourning and repentance. Often the ashes were produced by burning the palm fronds from Palm Sunday of the year before.
Ash Wednesday is also a very inclusive feast - Anglican, Catholic and other (reformed) Christians celebrate the day.
Why Ash Wednesday is so Obvious in Ireland
Catholics will traditionally observe Ash Wednesday by fasting, abstinence from meat and repentance. The outward sign of the latter is attendance at mass, where the ashes are received from the priest. And here the "obvious" comes in, as the ash (cross) will not be wiped off afterwards, but allowed to "naturally" fade away.
If you are a visitor to Ireland and not observing the feast, you'll no doubt be struck by the amount of people walking about this Wednesday with "smudged foreheads", especially after noon. Refrain from offering friendly advice and a handkerchief, a faux pas that'll put you beyond the pale.
As a curious aside - while Gardai are officially forbidden to display religious (or political) insignia on duty and in uniform, an ashen cross on the forehead seems to be tolerated.
Just How Serious Do the Irish Take Ash Wednesday?
Well, that depends ... on the individual. Many people do not care at all, others do not really care beyond mass and the receiving of the ashes, others go the full, traditional way.
Adult, healthy and not-too-old Catholics are, in theory, only permitted to eat one full meal on Ash Wednesday, but two smaller meals might be permissible (as long as those together do not exceed the full meal - which sounds very much like a diet plan). Ash Wednesday would also be a day of abstinence from meat (which, by church definition, means mammals and fowl - fish is permitted). But some Catholics may skip the minimum obligations in favour for either a complete fast or a fast with only bread and water on the day.
Very few Catholics will actually continue their fasting until the end of Lent - though this would not mean total abstinence from food.
Was Ash Wednesday Different in the Old Days?
Yes and no. Again it would depend very much on the individual, but generally speaking the observances would have been more rigid and every household would make sure to have at least one member in attendance at mass (who could then take ashes for the other family members home).
Also fasting would be longer and more austere - which might have to do with the necessities of an empty larder and a lean period in nature as well. Animal products would not have been eaten or used in cooking, again this applies to those won from mammals and fowl. So no meat, eggs, butter, milk and animal fats. Traditionally, the frying pan was cleaned after the pancake bonanza of Shrove Tuesday, and then put away for the season.
All socializing would be suspended too, no music, dancing or games were allowed. Even friendly visits between neighbours might be frowned upon. Alcohol and tobacco? Get thee behind me ...
New Traditions in Ireland
One of the most striking new developments was to designate Ash Wednesday as "National No Smoking Day" a few years ago. This nicely ties in with the traditional abhorrence of such frivolous luxury during Lent ... and with the image of ashes.
Ash Wednesday has also become a focal point for many a charity collection - as in choosing the day as a starting point for a Lent abstinence from whatever you want to. The idea being that you give up a little bit of luxury for the next forty days and give the money saved to a good cause. So it would not be unusual to be accosted by "chuggers" in the streets of Dublin, asking total strangers what they are planning to give up for Lent. Regardless of race or religion.
By the way, these guys are generally not really interested or even listening. I still remember passing St. Stephen's Green with a friend and being asked out of the blue what I was planning to give up for Lent. I answered that I had planned to give up fasting. The chugger lauded my intentions and asked whether I wanted to give the money saved by giving up fasting to a charitable cause ...