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Mardi Gras is a day of carnival, parades and competitions. Superiority and imagination are displayed in costumes, floats, bands and general magnificence. There are flowers, confetti, feasting and general hysteria of every kind.
Then comes Ash Wednesday, where reality overcomes the imagination and everything comes to a pause for solemn reflection.
Ash Wednesday is observed in countless churches worldwide as the beginning of Lent, a 40-day period of abstinence and thoughtful study which precedes the joyousness of Easter.
Historically, evidence from the writings of the early Christian church tells us that Easter was originally celebrated in conjunction with the Jewish Passover.
In addition to Scripture references, this combining of observances points to the Christian observance of the Pascha (Passover-Easter) through fasting, prayer and study.
It was early in the 4th century that an official church council confirmed the number of days and appointed the observance of Lent as a season of penitence, study and austerity before Holy Week and Easter.
The day before Ash Wednesday is Shrove Tuesday, and it is a day for us to be forgiven such sins as have been committed during the past year.
Churches all across the country will be observing Ash Wednesday wit special services that usually culminate with the marking of a cross with ashes on the foreheads of the faithful.
The ashes used for this ceremony of devotion are traditionally those resulting from the burning of palms left from the previous year’s Palm Sunday observance.
Lent is an old English term meaning “to lengthen.” It became associated with the lengthening days of early spring, a time to anticipate the power of Resurrection.
The ashen mark on the forehead is also an ancient reminder of the quotation from Genesis 3:19: “for dust thou art and to dust wilt thou return.”
Ashes have more importance than you might think. They can have many uses, some of them culinary.
Wood ashes contain potassium, sodium and other minerals. The Indians of the Creek, Seminole, Navajo and Hopi tribes lived in areas where salt was not readily available. They used wood ashes to season food.
Culinary ashes are made by burning certain bushes or tress until they crumble into ash. The Creeks used hickory; the Seminoles used juniper; and the Hopis added various other materials, such as split bean vines, pods and corncobs.
To create ordinary ashes for culinary use, a great pile of selected branches is carefully burned until it sinks into ashes.
Carefully sifted to remove any unburned twigs or other debris, they are stored in a container with a tightly fitted lid. They are used to season food.
A Hopi recipe for piki, a thin, cracker-like cornbread, calls for water, ground cornmeal and ashes.
The batter is cooked in thin sheets on a flat, oiled stone that has been previously heated in the fire.
There is no better fertilizer than wood ashes. They contain nitrates and other nutrients.
In September 1881, a devastating fire swept through the forests and timberlands of Michigan’s lower peninsula. Thousands of acres were consumed, and many thousands of people were left homeless and destitute.
It was a monumental tragedy that brought an end to the logging industry, the backbone of the state’s revenue and the basis of the fortunes of the famous lumber barons of the time.
People began to rebuild their houses in this treeless land and think in terms of farming.
They plowed the soil with its thick ash and, to their surprise and joy, the crops that first year were phenomenally good.
The farms of midstate Michigan are still famous for their cherries, apples, blueberries and beans, and people there still extol the merits of wood ashes as fertilizer.
Ashes in volcanic areas have been the means of protecting and preserving molds for later generations.
In the many excavations at Pompeii, for instance, the deep layer of volcanic ash kept thousands of articles — and even the bodies of people — intact for many decade.
They are now providing molds in the impressions left in the ash by plants, textiles and people. Plaster poured into these impressions can reproduce the forms that left the impression.
This have proven to be invaluable in creating an accurate history of life in ancient Pompeii before the famous eruption of Mount Vesuvius and its huge deposits of ash on the unfortunate city.
People who live in northern states especially know the value of coal or wood ashes to protect and provide traction on any icy sidewalk or road in winter. The ashes also help melt snow on steps and pathways.
In medieval times, medical formulas and remedies were basically herbal in composition.
But they incorporated some other pretty weird ingredients as well. Some of them are downright revolting to modern ideas. They employed ashes resulting from the burning of various substances.
The alchemists and soothsayers (or truthsayers) who compounded medical formularies could make their concoctions expensive and mysterious by adding such things as ashes from burned insects or animal parts, crushed and burned pearls or ivory or sandalwood.
Most of these did no particular good nor harm. The basic ingredients of the medicine did the trick.
Ashes to ashes!
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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.