“…dust thou art, to dust thou shalt return”

Of all the moveable feasts one must endure growing up in a Catholic household, I always found Ash Wednesday the least objectionable.  The idea of sporting schmootz on my forehead seemed so disjointed and out of place when compared to other church holidays, that it was a welcomed change. With the constant pageantry of bright colored flowing robes, getting a little dirty seemed naughty and fun. That, and since I grew up in Detroit, next to the polish enclave of Hamtramck, it also marked the annual arrival of Paczkis on Fat Tuesday.

hindu-gods-ganeshaI’m sure there are other reasons the holiday appealed to me. I think it was maybe the smell of the ashes. I’m partial to the smell of creosote. I like my popcorn almost but not quite burnt, like I like my toast. Extra cumin and cinnamon with a tablespoon of baking cocoa in my chili for an extra smokey, earthy flavor. And there’s probably something to do with the fact that as a child I also enjoyed making sandcastles and generally playing in the mud.

As with many holidays on the Christian calendar, it appears that Ash Wednesday, too, is a borrowed event from pagan origins introduced during the time of Constantine who was trying to blend the pagans and emerging Christians into a habitable unit.  It also appears that the practice of placing ashes on the face more than likely hails from the Hindu religion. The Romans, who incorporated the practice, had extensive contact with India during this period of time. Hindus believed marking the forehead between the eyes activated a third chakra. A third seeing eye.

There’s also some evidence of this practice existing in Egypt as well. Of course, Egyptians also burned red haired people alive so that their ashes could be spread in the fields to speed up the growth of seedlings. Hmmm, maybe this is also where early Christians cultivated their prejudice against redheads…

Now, I love all things pagan and the crazier the ritual, the better. I’ve been zig-zagging across town today on a variety of errands and decided to enjoy a coffee and jelly donut (no paczkis here in Erie that I’ve found) parked across a Catholic church where I watched the stream of worshippers exit the building appropriately sullied. And it’s as weird now as it was twenty years ago when I was still forced to endure this type of stuff under the rule of the parents. But still fascinating. Apparently the Eastern Rite churches don’t practice Ash Wednesday so no action is to be found there.

Tribal regions in the Middle East have a saying: “Every man must remember that every man must die”. Sounds familiar. They also have interesting predilections towards ashes in relation to purification. Even more familiar. Northern Europe isn’t excluded from this, fire, ashes, and purification is all over the damn place up there.

Curious that this is only seen as a Catholic holiday.

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