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By Ellen Probert Williamson
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 in the book of Corinthians, this combining of observances points to the Christian observance of the Pascha (Passover-Easter) through fasting, prayer and study.
It was in the early 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 called Shrove Tuesday, a day to be forgiven such sins as have been committed during the past year.
It is more generally known as Mardi Gras, or, translated from the French, Fat or Greasy Tuesday. This is always a day of culinary and social excess before Ash Wednesday ushers in the disciplined days of Lent.
Ashes have more importance in daily life than you may think. They can have so many uses.
One of them is culinary. Wood ashes contain sodium, potassium and other minerals. The Indians of the Creek, Seminole, Hopi and Navajo tribes, who live in areas where salt is not readily available, use wood ashes to season food.
Culinary ashes are made by burning certain trees or bushes until they crumble into ash. The Creeks and the Seminole use hickory and the Navajos use juniper.
The Hopis use a combination of these with other materials including corncobs and bean vines.
To create the ashes, a great pile of these woods are carefully burned and sifted, after which they are stored in a tightly covered container to be used as a condiment.
There is no better fertilizer than wood ash. It contains nitrates and nitrites and many other nutrients.
A most devastating forest fire swept through a wide area of the lower peninsula of Michigan in September 1881.
It consumed thousands of acres of forest and timberland and left hundreds of people homeless and destitute. This monumental tragedy brought an end to the vast logging industry that was the backbone of much of the state’s revenue at that time and was the basis of the fortunes made by famous lumber barons of that era.
The fire left thousands of acres of treeless land. But a new era began as people began to rebuild their houses and think in terms of farming rather than forestry of lumbering.
They plowed into the soil the thick layer of wood ash which covered the land and, to their joy and surprise, the crops that resulted that year and for several years were phenomenally good.
The farmers of mid-state Michigan are still famous for their lush crops of cherries, apples, blueberries and beans, and farmers still extol the merits of wood ash as fertilizer.
Of course, anyone who lives in one of the northern states knows the value of coal or wood ashes to provide traction on icy roads or walkways in winter, and to help melt snow on steps and pathways.
Medieval medical formulas and remedies were basically herbal in composition, but many incorporated numbers of other ingredients — some of which were very strange and often quite revolting. Often, these were the ashes of various burned substances.
The alchemists and soothsayers who made the medicines could make them much more mysterious and expensive by adding burned ivory, pearls, sandalwood or crushed insects. Most of these did no particular harm or good, and the herbs involved were what made the remedy successful.
Ashes in volcanic areas have been the means of protecting and preserving history for later generations.
In the many excavations at Pompeii, for instance, the deep layer of volcanic ash has kept intact thousands of artifacts — and even the bodies of people — for many decades.
They are now providing molds in the impressions left in the ash by plants, textiles and persons so that plaster poured in these impressions can reproduce the forms which made the impressions.
This was invaluable in recreating an accurate history of life in ancient Pompeii before the famous eruption of Mount Vesuvius and its huge deposit of ashes on the unfortunate city.
Ash Wednesday falls on March 9 this year, and in many churches everywhere there will be services to mark the day.
At the culmination of these observances the faithful will be marked with a cross in ashes on their foreheads as they leave.
The ashes used for this devotional ceremony are traditionally derived from the burning of the palms left from the previous year’s Palm Sunday observance.
Lent, the period of 40 days (excluding Sundays) between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday was originally celebrated immediately after Epiphany Sunday, just after the Christmas services were past, rather than just before Easter Sunday.
It began as a period of fasting to correspond to Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness, following his time of temptation.
And all this leads to our modern observances of this season of the Christian Church year.
Ashes to ashes ...
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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.