History and Significance of Ash Wednesday in Latin America
February and March are the months of Carnival and Lent, and the one day that separates them: Ash Wednesday.
The history of Ash Wednesday goes back to the times of the Roman Empire, and it’s full of interesting details and strong symbols. This important Christian celebration was brought to Latin America by Spanish and Portuguese conquerors 500 years ago.
Keep reading to learn how Ash Wednesday in Latin America has evolved over the last five centuries, as I’ll dig deep on the origins of the famous Miércoles de Ceniza and its traditional celebrations in different Latin American countries. I’ll even provide you with some interesting facts and Spanish vocabulary about this important date in the Christian calendar.
What Is Ash Wednesday?
According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Ash Wednesday is “the first day of Lent, occurring six and a half weeks before Easter.” Ashes have a strong symbolic meaning in Chirstianity, and serve as a reminder of human mortality.
On this day, a special Mass (Catholics) or worship service (Protestants) takes place, where the priest or pastor gives a penitential and reflective sermon, and attendees engage in private or communal confession. Then, the priest or pastor spreads the ashes on the forehead of the congregated, to symbolize death and repentance.
Origins of Ash Wednesday in Latin America
As many other traditions of Christianity, the origins of Ash Wednesday can be traced back to ancient Rome. There, sinners and penitents dressed in sackcloth were sprinkled with ashes to start their period of public penance on the first day of Lent.
This practice was later institutionalized by Pope Urban II who in 1091 decreed that “on Ash Wednesday, everyone—clergy and laity, men and women—will receive ashes.” Since then it has been a day of obligatory fasting and abstinence for Catholics. Some Protestant denominations observe Ash Wednesday, but significantly the Orthodox faith doesn’t celebrate it.
How Is Miércoles de Ceniza Celebrated in Latin America?
In Latin America, a large majority of the population is Catholic. Many people celebrate Miércoles de Ceniza throughout the region. However, each country does it in a slightly different way.
Ash Wednesday in Mexico
I remember receiving the ashes on my forehead many times as a child. It was one of the most interesting days to go to church, as something fun and different happened during that Mass: a priest putting ashes on your head! Afterwards, kids would play to get the ashes off the other kids’ foreheads.
Adults, on the other hand, leave the ashes on their foreheads all day to show others that they have fulfilled with their duty as Catholics and as a sign of humility.
Ash Wednesday in Guatemala
In the Guatemalan village of San Juan Sacatepequez, the women, who are mostly of indigenous Mayan descent, go to church wearing their traditional garments and woven veils to receive the ashes that symbolize the start of Lent.
Ash Wednesday in Peru
In Ayacucho, Peru, Easter and the Holy Week are huge, and it all starts with an interesting celebration on Ash Wednesday. After the traditional imposition of the ashes on the worshippers’ foreheads, pilgrims surround the image of Jesus while the whole city goes dark in order to allow the candles of the pilgrims to illuminate the place.
Interesting Facts About Ash Wednesday
Let’s learn some cool facts about the Miércoles de Ceniza celebration in the Christian world.
The day before Ash Wednesday, people used to eat a lot more than usual for two possible reasons:
1. To enjoy a final binge before the 40 days of fasting started on the following day (Ash Wednesday)
2. To empty the house of all those foods that people couldn’t eat during Lent—not only beef and pork but also milk, eggs, sweets, and desserts
Because of this tradition, the day before was called “Fat Tuesday” or “Mardi Gras” in French.
“To Dust You Shall Return”
Since the Middle Ages, the Ash Wednesday tradition has been institutionalized by the Roman Catholic Church. Proof of this can be found in a 12th-century missal, which is basically a book about Chritianity’s rituals, that includes in its pages the words that the priest should pronounce while putting the ashes on the foreheads of the people:
“Remember, man, that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
Ashes are similar to dust, and the message resonated through Christianity, as this phrase reminds Christians of the words that God himself said to Adam and Eve before expelling them from Paradise. It’s also a reminder of one’s own mortality, which is more than enough to send people into a state of reflection and humility.
One of the most surprising things I’ve learned about Ash Wednesday is that it’s an eco-friendly celebration. Let me explain.
The Sunday before Easter is called Palm Sunday or Domingo de Ramos because churches give palm fronds to their parishioners. These palms represent those used by the people of Jerusalem to welcome Jesus to their city.
However, that’s not the only use of the palms, as people keep them for 11 months before taking them back to the church, where they’re burned to make the ashes used on Ash Wednesday. Impressive how everything has a meaning and it’s somehow connected in these centuries-old rituals, right?
Useful Spanish Ash Wednesday Vocabulary
Time to learn some useful Spanish vocabulary about Ash Wednesday:
El Miércoles de Ceniza – Ash Wednesday
El Martes de Carnaval – Mardi Gras
El Domingo de Ramos – Palm Sunday
La Cuaresma – Lent
La Pascua – Easter
La Semana Santa – Holy Week
Los huevos de Pascua – Easter eggs
La misa – Mass
Ayunar – to fast
Learn Spanish by Understanding its Culture
Learning a language is a process that involves many areas and skills. Grammar is one of them, and you’ll find a lot of posts about grammar on this blog. You also have to develop your vocabulary, speaking and listening skills, and so on. As a result, some Spanish learning resources skip over learning about the culture behind the language, and that’s a mistake.
At Homeschool Spanish Academy, we believe in a comprehensive approach to learning Spanish, and for this reason we provide our students with cultural content that gives them insightful information about the Spanish speaking world. By learning about the celebration of Ash Wednesday or Carnival in Latin America, for example, you’ll improve your understanding of this amazing culture and that’ll help you in your Spanish learning process.
Sign up for a free trial class with one of our certified teachers from Guatemala and start speaking today in Spanish about the tradition of Ash Wednesday in Latin America.
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