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.

Holiday Cheat Sheet for Nonreligious Parents

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We here at Relax, It's Just God believe that religious literacy and tolerance doesn't just happen. We parents have to make it happen.

Unfortunately, saying the word “Hanukkah” once a year and pointing out burkas in the airport just doesn't cut it. A true religious education requires context. Tolerance requires action. If you want your children to be interested in and respectful of those around them, you must knit a sense of interest and respect into your childrearing — today and throughout the year.

That's why major religious holidays are such fantastic vehicles for religious literacy. And the best part? Thanks to this here Holiday Cheat Sheet, you don't have to know a damn thing about any of them. We're one-stop shopping for on-the-go parents. Click on one of the links and in just a few minutes, you'll find out why that holiday exists, how it's celebrated and fun ways to convey its meanings to kids.

So stop letting those vaguely familiar-sounding holidays pass you by in a blur of Phineas and Ferb re-runs. Seize these small but wonderful opportunities to introduce your kids to religious concepts and figures — while also showing compassion for the people who hold these concepts and figures so dear.

September

Quick! What the Hell is Yom Kippur (Judaism)

Quick! What the Hell is Rosh Hashana? (Judaism)

October

Quick! What the Hell is Diwali? (Hinduism)

Quick! What the Hell is Hajj? (Islam)

Quick! What the Hell is Eid al-Adha? (Islam)

December

Quick! What the Hell is Hanukkah? (Judaism)

Quick! What the Hell is Christmas? (Christianity)

January

Quick! What the Hell is Epiphany? (Christianity)

Quick: What the Hell is Mawlid al-Nabi? (Islam)

February

Quick: What the Hell is St. Valentine's Day? (Christianity)

Quick: What the Hell is Ash Wednesday? (Christianity)

March

Quick! What the Hell is Purim? (Judaism)

April

Quick! What the Hell is Easter? (Christianity)

Quick! What the Hell is Passover? (Judaism)

May

Quick! What the Hell is Vesak Day? (Buddhism)

Quick! What the Hell is Pentecost? (Christianity)

July

Quick! What the Hell is Ramadan? (Islam)

Quick! What the Hell is Eid ul-Fitr? (Islam)

There's more to come, so please keep checking back!