The ashes

Ash Wednesday (in German Aschermittwoch) is the day that marks the beginning of Lent in the Christian calendar. In Cologne – and also other regions in the world that celebrate carnival – it is also the end of the carnival season. But what does this day have to do with ashes? Where does the name come from and what are customary traditions to observe this day around the world?

Am Aschermittwoch is alles vorbei’ (‘It all comes to an end on Ash Wednesday’), sang legendary Cologne carnival crooner Schmitze Jupp (Josef Schmitz) since the 1950ies. This song is so well-known that its famous line has become a dictum and apparently is even inscribed on Josef’s headstone.

Encyclopaedia Britannica tells us that Ash Wednesday, which occurs six and a half weeks before Easter between February 4 and March 11, depending on the date of Easter, is ‘a solemn reminder of human mortality and the need for reconciliation with God’.

It further says there that the tradition of a cross of ashes being drawn on people’s foreheads in the Catholic church comes from the early-Christian practice in Rome of sprinkling penitents (Büßer), i.e. people who had been imposed a public penance (Kirchenbuße), with the ashes of palms burned on Palm Sunday the previous year.

The Church of England, at 14% the as-yet slightly predominant faith in the UK, also practices ash crosses on people’s foreheads. According to its website, ‘Ash Wednesday services set the tone for Lent, with sombre readings and hymns and a focus on penitence (saying sorry for and turning away from sin)’.

Traditions on Ash Wednesday are similar around the world, as they all relate to the Christian religion. They include fasting, i.e. eating only one meal which excludes meat, celebrating mass, being mindful of what the church considers ‘sinful’ behaviour and repenting.

While, as an atheist myself, I’m not buying into this whole authoritarian punishment stuff, I must say that the odd time of reflection and mindfulness does seem like a good idea.

If you feel like delving deeper into the realm of the 7 Deadly Sins, I’m happy to recommend, once again, Stephen Fry’s eponymous podcast.

I for one think that the mündige Bürger can be trusted to decide fully independently when her personal best time for contemplation is and prefer for public displays such as this blog and podcast to spread a more joyous spirit.

On that note, here are three fun facts about ashes:

  • In the political arena in Germany, Ash Wednesday is special day of fuelled debates referred to as Der politische Aschermittwoch.
  • The Ashes is the name of a famous trophy in cricket (yes, that sport that no-one outside of the Commonwealth understands) – and, yes, times they are a-gendering, and therefore there is, of course, also The Women’s Ashes.
  • One of my favourite English-language books is the Irish novel Angela’s Ashes (German title: Die Asche meiner Mutter) by Frank McCourt.

What comes to an end is, in this case, today’s blog article. Do you guys have any fun austerities lined up for Lent? Feel free to write about these – or any other ash-related treats – in the comments section below.

The Pommes Buddha says: Thank God I’m an atheist.

Listen to this text as a podcast episode:

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