There’s an old story about a Jewish mother who sees a young man with dirt on his face. She goes up to him and says “Honey, you have schmutz on your forehead,” as she proceeds to spit on her fingers and wipe it off. He replies “Um, it’s Ash Wednesday.”
At the heart of this tale is the general ignorance of much of the population about Ash Wednesday, commemorated today. According to Beliefnet:
Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent. Worshipers attend services at which they receive ashes on their foreheads. The pastor marks the forehead of each worshiper, often saying “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
The ashes consist of burned palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday service. Ashes are viewed throughout Christian history as a symbol of humility and sacrifice for those who wear them. In earlier times, Christians who committed serious sins did public penance. As part of this, they were sprinkled with ashes and required to wear sackcloths. (MORE)
The first time I saw people commemorating this day was not until I attended college. I was totally confused and had to ask too many people what was going on before I got the real answer.
I still think that there should be some kind of warning on Mardi Gras, reminding us that the schmutz is legitimate.