Quick! What the Hell is Ash Wednesday?

So much of religion centers on food. The faithful, it seems, are constantly feasting or fasting. Indulging or holding back. In Christianity, this feasting-fasting cycle is never more apparent than during the Easter season, which kicks off with Mardi Gras (feasting!), followed by Lent (fasting!), which finally — and mercifully — culminates in Easter (feasting again!)

Yesterday was Mardi Gras (AKA Fat Tuesday) — which means New Orleans had one hell of a street party. Many Catholics were getting their  ya-ya's out because today is the beginning of Lent (AKA Ash Wednesday) — the day that millions of people around the world stop buying Starbucks, swearing like sailors, gossiping about their co-workers, and eating entire sticks of butter while watching porn.

Poor bastards. What happened to everything in moderation?

Anyway, here's the low-down on Ash Wednesday.

Holiday: Ash Wednesday

Religion represented: Christianity

Date: Ash Wednesday always falls 46 days before Easter Sunday. This year, it's March 5. In 2015, it will be Feb. 18.

Celebrates: The first day of Lent.

What is Lent? The 40-day “fasting” period leading up to Easter. (Observers are afforded six built-in “breaks” — every Sunday during Lent, which means Lent begins 46 days before Easter.)

On a Scale of 1 to 10: Maybe a 5.

Star of the Show: Jesus

Back Story: According to the Gospels, Jesus spent 40 days wandering the desert, and fasting, before beginning his ministry, which led up to his death. Ash represents the idea that people came from ash, and to ash they will return — a reminder of Christians’ mortality. Also, ash is symbolic of penance, contrition and a desire to “burn away” sins..In the early days of the church, only Christians who had committed “grave sins” were marked with ash (Think the “Scarlet Letter A”) and prohibited from reentering the church until they had recited the Seven Penitential Psalms and performed 40 days of “penance and absolution.” Now, of course, Christians partake voluntarily.

Associated Literary Passages: Mentions of ash can be found in 2 Samuel 13:19Esther 4:1Job 2:8Daniel 9:3; and Matthew 11:21, among others.

Ash Wednesday: Observers attend worship services, where a priest or minister combines ashes with water or a little oil, dips his or her thumb into the mixture, and uses it to make the sign of the cross on parishioner’s foreheads.

The Food and Fun: Food and fun? Um, not so much, unless you include Fat Tuesday — which occurs the day before Ash Wednesday and serves as Christians’ last hurray before Lent. Traditionally, Christians are meant to “give up” something they enjoy and instead give to charity. For example, one might give up watching TV and instead donate that time to volunteer work. Or a person might give up Dr. Pepper and use the money saved to buy toys for poor children. That sort of thing. It’s actually a really beautiful idea — taking away something we love and, in a sense, giving it away to someone else. Selflessness at its best.

Conveying meaning to kids: Maybe show a picture of a person with an ashen cross on his head. Explain that, on Ash Wednesday, lots of Christians go to church to receive this symbol. (If you haven’t touched on the fact that a cross is a religious symbol, now would be a good time.) People who receive the cross, you can say, are showing their devotion to their God and their desire to turn away from sin (bad acts), so that they will be invited into heaven when they die. Then you can explain the three aspects of Lent and introduce the idea of giving up something you love and giving to someone in need. If the children are interested in giving Lent a whirl, maybe brainstorm some ideas and embark on the experiment together.

Be sure to check out other entries in Relax, It's Just God'Holiday Cheat Sheet for Nonreligious Parents.

A version of this blog originally appeared in February 2012.