Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent and was a solemn, sober time celebrating the start of Christ’s forty-day fast and temptation in the wilderness.
On this day the priest would draw the sign of the cross on his parishioners’ heads with ash made from the palms which had been used on Palm Sunday. Indeed, I can recall school children competing to see who could keep the ash marks on their foreheads the longest, one can only guess at the bath time battles that ensued on Ash Wednesday evening.
In point of fact the use of ashes as a mark of penitence is a Jewish tradition and did not become universal in the Christian faith until the Synod of Benevento in 1091. Later, the Church of England continued to observe the festival by public readings and the denouncing and cursing of recalcitrant sinners.
Ash Wednesday was also the start of the marble season and competitions would run until the championship match on Good Friday. My mother recalled that in Sussex during the 1930s children would stamp on each other’s feet on this day, the only way to keep your toes intact was to have an ash twig which you would wave at any prospective tootsie tramplers, thus ensuring your safety.