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Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent as observed by many Western Christian denominations, including Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Baptists, and Methodists.
The days of Lent are calculated differently among the various Western Christian denominations, depending on how they calculate the date of Easter, but in all traditions is held to last for forty days leading up to Easter. Lent commemorates the 40 days Jesus Christ spent fasting in the desert according to the Gospels and is considered a time of preparation for the Easter Vigil, for prayer, for repentance of sin, and for self-denial.
During Lent observers will make a Lenten sacrifice, abstaining from a luxury or a pleasure and praying for the strength to keep it for the whole season. Coffee, sugar, tobacco, and alcohol are common options for Lenten sacrifice, and it is not unusual for Christians to practice vegetarianism during the period. Fasting on Ash Wednesday is common to many denominations, with some continuing to fast throughout the Lenten season.
Some Christians begin Ash Wednesday by marking a Lenten calendar, which is essentially to Easter what an Advent calendar is to Christmas. The Lenten calendar will often have windows which open to reveal scriptural verses and Lent related images.
The ceremonial placing of ashes on the heads of worshippers is a shared practice of many denominations on Ash Wednesday, with some churches sprinkling them over the head, and others using the ashes to mark a cross on the forehead. For some churches, including the Roman Catholic church, these ashes are made by burning the palm fronds which were blessed at the previous year’s Palm Sunday service.
The practice of putting ashes on one’s head has Biblical significance as an expression of grief and sorrow.
Ash Wednesday is the Wednesday 46 days before Easter Sunday – the 40 days of Lent plus the Sundays which fall in that time. Easter is a movable feast; the date being determined by the lunar cycle. It is observed on the first Sunday after the paschal full moon, being the first full moon to fall on or after the 21st of March. As such, Ash Wednesday falls on a different date every year, but is always in February or early March.