7 Things You Might Not Know About Ash Wednesday


In 2019, millions of Christians around the world will attend an Ash Wednesday service on March 6 to mark the start of the 2019 Lenten season. The practice of marking worshippers' foreheads with ashes in the shape of a cross is one of Christianity's most visible rituals, but it's just one component of the holy day. Whether or not you observe it, here are some facts about Ash Wednesday worth knowing.

1. Not all Christians observe Ash Wednesday.

Ash Wednesday at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City in 2016.
Ash Wednesday at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City in 2016.
Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images

While Ash Wednesday is perhaps most closely associated with Catholicism, there are many Christian sects that recognize it, including Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and some Baptists. There are also Christians that refrain from Ash Wednesday celebrations. Mormons, Evangelicals, and Pentecostal Christians are some of the denominations that don't take part in the holy day.

2. The ash has biblical significance.

A priest prepares black ashes for the Ash Wednesday ceremony in Surabaya, Indonesia in 2014.
A priest prepares black ashes for the Ash Wednesday ceremony in Surabaya, Indonesia in 2014.
Robertus Pudyanto/Getty Images

The ashes used on Ash Wednesday are meant to represent dust. When receiving ashes on their foreheads, parishioners hear the words: "Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return." This is a reference what God says to Adam when exiling him from the Garden of Eden (in the Christian Bible, Adam is literally formed from dust). On Ash Wednesday, the saying is a reminder to be humble in the face of mortality.

3. The history of Ash Wednesday is less than 1000 years old.

A minister performs an Ash Wednesday service at the Kandahar Airbase in Kandahar, Afghanistan in 2002.
A minister performs an Ash Wednesday service at the Kandahar Airbase in Kandahar, Afghanistan in 2002.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The first Ash Wednesday ceremonies were likely held sometime in 11th century CE. It's never mentioned in the Bible, but there is a verse in the Book of Daniel that links fasting to ashes, and some scholars believe this is the origin of the Lenten practice. Ash Wednesday didn't gain mainstream popularity with Christians in the U.S. until the 1970s.

4. Ashes are recycled from last Lent.

A cross and burned palm leaves in ash.

The ashes used on Ash Wednesday are surprisingly eco-friendly. On Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter, many churches pass out palm fronds like those used to welcome Jesus Christ to Jerusalem days before his crucifixion. Some churches save those palms to burn them and make the ashes that are applied to peoples' foreheads roughly 11 months later.

5. There are rules about what you can eat on Ash Wednesday.

New York's Cardinal Timothy Dolan joins fellow volunteers distributing food at a breadline at St. Francis Assisi on Ash Wednesday in 2012 in New York City.
New York's Cardinal Timothy Dolan joins fellow volunteers distributing food at a breadline at St. Francis Assisi on Ash Wednesday in 2012 in New York City.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Ash Wednesday is a day of fasting. For many Christians, that doesn't mean abstaining from food completely: Instead, observers of the holy day should limit themselves to one whole meal plus two smaller meals that, when added up, don't equal a meal they would eat on a normal day. Christians marking Ash Wednesday should also avoid eating meat like they would on Fridays during Lent. (Filet-o-fish is still fine to eat, though.)

6. In Iceland, Ash Wednesday can look like Halloween.

A child dressed as a dragon celebrates Ash Wednesday with his parents dressed as police officers in 2011.
A child dressed as a dragon celebrates Ash Wednesday with his parents (dressed as police officers) in 2011.

The Tuesday before Ash Wednesday is normally reserved for indulgence and revelry (think: Mardi Gras), but in Iceland, the fun doesn't stop there. The first day of Lent in Iceland, called Öskudagur, is similar to Halloween in the U.S. Kids dress up in costumes and tour their neighborhoods singing songs in exchange for candy. The holiday even makes room for mischief—in one fading tradition, kids will sometimes pin "ash bags" (often filled with grains instead of ash) to the backs of their peers when they aren't looking.

7. You can get ashes without going to church.

In celebration of Ash Wednesday, a member of the Urban Village Church rubs ashes on the forehead of a commuter outside of a subway station in Chicago in 2018.
In celebration of Ash Wednesday, a member of the Urban Village Church rubs ashes on the forehead of a commuter outside of a subway station in Chicago in 2018.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Can't make it to church on a weekday? Many parishes have started offering "ashes to go" on Ash Wednesday. Priests and pastors will often station themselves in public places—like street corners, parking lots, and public transit stops—prepared to administer blessed ashes to whoever asks to receive them.

Along those lines, you don't need to be a church leader to administer ashes. Many churches give parishioners the option to take packets of ashes home with them to apply to the foreheads of loved ones who couldn't make it to the service. Receiving ashes isn't a sacrament, so the rules surrounding it aren't as strict as they are with something like holy communion in the Catholic church.

25 Amazing Facts About the Human Body


The human body is an amazing piece of machinery—with a few weird quirks.

  1. It’s possible to brush your teeth too aggressively. Doing so can wear down enamel and make teeth sensitive to hot and cold foods.

  2. Goose bumps evolved to make our ancestors’ hair stand up, making them appear more threatening to predators.

Woman's legs with goosebumps
  1. Wisdom teeth serve no purpose. They’re left over from hundreds of thousands of years ago. As early humans’ brains grew bigger, it reduced space in the mouth, crowding out this third set of molars.

  2. Scientists aren't exactly sure why we yawn, but it may help regulate body temperature.

  3. Your fingernails don’t actually grow after you’re dead.

  4. If they were laid end to end, all of the blood vessels in the human body would encircle the Earth four times.

  5. Humans are the only animals with chins.

    An older woman's chin
    1. As you breathe, most of the air is going in and out of one nostril. Every few hours, the workload shifts to the other nostril.

    2. Blood makes up about 8 percent of your total body weight.

    3. The human nose can detect about 1 trillion smells.

    4. You have two kidneys, but only one is necessary to live.

    5. Belly buttons grow special hairs to catch lint.

      A woman putting her hands in a heart shape around her belly button
      1. The satisfying sound of cracking your knuckles comes from gas bubbles bursting in your joints.

      2. Skin is the body’s largest organ and can comprise 15 percent of a person’s total weight.

      3. Thumbs have their own pulse.

      4. Your tongue is made up of eight interwoven muscles, similar in structure to an elephant’s trunk or an octopus’s tentacle.

      5. On a genetic level, all human beings are more than 99 percent identical.

        Identical twin baby boys in striped shirts
        1. The foot is one of the most ticklish parts of the body.

        2. Extraocular muscles in the eye are the body’s fastest muscles. They allow both of your eyes to flick in the same direction in a single 50-millisecond movement.

        3. A surgical procedure called a selective amygdalohippocampectomy removes half of the brain’s amygdala—and with it, the patient’s sense of fear.

        4. The pineal gland, which secretes the hormone melatonin, got its name from its shape, which resembles a pine nut.

        5. Hair grows fast—about 6 inches per year. The only thing in the body that grows faster is bone marrow.

          An African-American woman drying her hair with a towel and laughing
          1. No one really knows what fingerprints are for, but they might help wick water away from our hands, prevent blisters, or improve touch.

          2. The heart beats more than 3 billion times in the average human lifespan.

          3. Blushing is caused by a rush of adrenaline.

8 Facts About Shel Silverstein

Shel Silverstein was a multi-talented children’s author, comic artist, poet, playwright, and songwriter, and above all else, a rule-breaker. From The Giving Tree to Where the Sidewalk Ends, his titles are beloved by children and adults alike. At the time they were written, though, they defied common notions about what a "children’s" story could and should be. This isn’t all that surprising, considering that the Chicago-born author, who passed away in 1999, led a pretty unconventional life. Here are eight things you might not know about him.

1. One of Shel Silverstein's first jobs was selling hot dogs in Chicago.

Shel Silverstein didn’t always want to be a writer, or even a cartoonist or songwriter. His first love was baseball. "When I was a kid—12, 14, around there—I would much rather have been a good baseball player or a hit with the girls," he once said in an interview. "But I couldn’t play ball, I couldn’t dance. Luckily, the girls didn’t want me; not much I could do about that. So I started to draw and to write.” The closest he came to his MLB dream was when he landed a stint at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, selling hot dogs to White Sox fans.

2. Silverstein never finished college.

Silverstein was expelled from one school (the University of Illinois) and dropped out of another (the School of the Art Institute of Chicago). Finally, he managed to get through three years of the English program at Chicago's Roosevelt University, but his studies came to an abrupt end when he was drafted in 1953.

3. Silverstein was a Korean War veteran.

In the 1950s, Silverstein was drafted into the U.S. armed service. While he was stationed in Korea and Japan, he also worked as a cartoonist for the military publication Stars and Stripes. It was his first big cartooning gig. "For a guy of my age and with my limited experience to suddenly have to turn out cartoons on a day-to-day deadline deadline, the job was enormous,'' Silverstein told Stars and Stripes in a 1969 interview.

4. Silverstein worked for Playboy magazine and was Part of Hugh Hefner's inner circle.

That’s right: the lovable children’s author was on Playboy’s payroll for many years. He started drawing comics for the men’s magazine in the 1950s and ended up becoming close friends with Hugh Hefner. In fact, he often spent weeks or even months at the Playboy Mansion, where he wrote some of his books. His cartoons for the magazine proved so popular that Playboy sent him around the world to find the humor in places like London, Paris, North Africa, and Moscow during the Cold War. Perhaps his most off-color assignment, though, was visiting a nudist camp in New Jersey. These drawings were compiled in the 2007 book Playboy's Silverstein Around the World, which includes a foreword from Hefner.

5. Silverstein wrote Johnny Cash's hit song "A Boy Named Sue."

Few people know that Silverstein was a songwriter, too. One of his biggest hits was the comical tale of a boy who learned how to defend himself after being relentlessly bullied for his feminine-sounding name, Sue. The song was popularized by Johnny Cash and ended up being his top-selling single, while Silverstein was awarded a Grammy for Best Country Song. You can watch Silverstein strumming the guitar and shouting the lyrics alongside Cash on The Johnny Cash Show in the video above. Silverstein also wrote a follow-up song from the dad’s point of view, The Father of a Boy Named Sue, but it didn't take off the way the original did.

6. Silverstein is in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Three years after his death, Silverstein was inducted posthumously into this exclusive society of songwriters. He wrote more than 800 songs throughout his career, some of which were quite raunchy. But his best-known songs were performed by country legends like Loretta Lynn and Waylon Jennings. “His compositions were instantly identifiable, filled with elevated wordplay and captivating, humor-filled narratives,” the Nashville Songwriters Foundation said of Silverstein's music.

7. Silverstein wrote the first children’s book to appear on The New York Times best sellerS list.

A Light in the Attic (1981) was the first children’s book to ever make it onto the prestigious New York Times Best Sellers list. It remained there for a whopping 182 weeks, breaking all of the previous records for hardcover books at that time.

8. Silverstein wasn't a fan of happy endings.

If you couldn’t already tell by The Giving Tree’s sad conclusion, Silverstein didn’t believe in giving his stories happy endings. He felt that doing so would alienate his young readers. "The child asks why I don't have this happiness thing you're telling me about, and comes to think when his joy stops that he has failed, that it won't come back,” the author said in a 1978 interview. This turned out to be a risky move, and The Giving Tree was rejected several times for being too sad or too unconventional. Fortunately, after four years of searching for a publisher, it found a home at HarperCollins (then Harper & Row) and has gone on to become one of the best-selling—and most beloved—children's books of all time.