What is Ash Wednesday? Why do we celebrate it, Why some Christians don’t, and What’s with Fat Tuesday?

Corbin Riley   -  

Hello, dear friends! Today is Ash Wednesday, a special day in the Christian calendar that marks the beginning of Lent, a season of prayer, fasting, and repentance. But what is the history and meaning of this day? And how do different Christian observe it? Let’s find out!

Fat Tuesday’s Pagan Beginnings

But first, let’s talk about yesterday, which was Fat Tuesday, also known as Mardi Gras. This is the last day of Carnival, a festive season that precedes Lent. The name Fat Tuesday comes from the French Mardi Gras, and it reflects the custom of eating all the rich and fatty foods in the house before the Lenten fast begins.

Fat Tuesday has its origins in ancient Roman festivals that honored the gods Lupercalia and Saturnalia in mid-February. When Christianity spread to Rome, these pagan celebrations were incorporated into the Christian calendar as a way of preparing for Lent. Of course, it should be noted that not all Christians directly participate or even consider Fat Tuesday a part of the buildup to Lent.

Fat Tuesday is celebrated in different ways around the world, but some of the most famous ones are in New Orleans, Louisiana; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Venice, Italy; and Nice, France. These places are known for their colorful parades, costumes, masks, music, dancing, and food. Some of the traditional foods eaten on Fat Tuesday include pancakes, donuts, king cake, gumbo, and jambalaya.

Fat Tuesday is the day to enjoy whatever you may be giving up for Lent (such as sweets, your favorite food, social media, or whatever you choose), and while it doesn’t have ancient roots in Christian tradition and many today have secularized it; nevertheless, it can be viewed as another example of Christianity recontextualizing pagan tradition from misguided revelry into a holy celebration.

Ash Wednesday: Rediscovering Ancient Practices

Now, let’s move on to Ash Wednesday, which is today. This is the first day of Lent, a 40-day period of fasting, prayer, and giving to the poor that leads up to Easter Sunday. Ash Wednesday derives its name from the practice of placing ashes on the forehead in the shape of a cross. This is a sign of humility, mortality, and sorrow for sin derived from Genesis 3:19. The ashes are usually made by burning the palm branches from the previous year’s Palm Sunday.

The origin of this practice is not entirely clear, but it is thought that it dates back to the 6th century when Pope Gregory the Great initiated it for public penitents who had to undergo a period of penance before being reconciled with the church on Maundy Thursday.

Ash Wednesday is observed by many Western Christian denominations, such as Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and more, but not all Christian denominations observe Ash Wednesday or even Lent. Eastern Orthodox churches do not observe Ash Wednesday but start Lent on Clean Monday instead.

A fun fact is that in United Methodist history (which The Global Methodist denomination was recently formed out of), the first adoption of an official ritual for Ash Wednesday that involves the use of ashes first appeared in the 1992 Book of Worship. Prior to that time, Methodists either had no official service at all for this day (through 1964) or an “ashless” Ash Wednesday Service (1965 Book of Worship) (Ask the UMC).

Ash Wednesday is not a day of gloom or despair but a day of hope and grace. It reminds us that we are not perfect, but we have a perfect Savior who loves us and forgives us. It invites us to turn away from our sins and turn toward God, who is always ready to welcome us with open arms. It challenges us to grow in our faith and love during Lent so that we can celebrate Easter with joy and gratitude.

I hope this blog post has helped you understand more about Fat Tuesday and Ash Wednesday and how they have changed into what they are today. I hope it has also inspired you to look forward to this season of Lent as an opportunity to deepen your relationship with God and with others. May God bless you all this Lent and always improve the present moment!



“Loving God,

As we begin this sacred season of Lent, we come before you with humble hearts.

Grant us the grace to recognize our own mortality, to acknowledge our sins, and to seek your forgiveness.

May the ashes on our foreheads remind us of our dependence on you, and may they lead us to a deeper commitment to follow Christ’s path of love and sacrifice.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.”



“Ask The UMC-FAQs: When did Ash Wednesday begin and why do we celebrate it?”1 United Methodist Communications, 1 Aug. 2019, https://www.resourceumc.org/en/content/ask-the-umc-faqs-when-did-ash-wednesday-begin-and-why-do-we-celebrate-it. Accessed 13 Feb. 2024.