You may see people with smudges on their forehead today. This is a heavily concentrated Catholic area, so it’s pretty common to see it.

Today is Ash Wednesday – the beginning of Lent – a period of 40 days of penance, reflection and abstinence, not including Sundays, leading up to Easter.

As part of the tradition, Catholics are asked to give up meat on Ash Wednesday and on Fridays during Lent. Additionally, on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, adults are asked to eat only one full meal as a sign of their devotion. It’s also common for Catholics to give up something they enjoy during Lent…candy, desserts, beer, smoking.

Ashes made from palms leaves from the previous year are mixed with olive oil and blessed and applied to the forehead in a sign of the cross with the words “remember, o man that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” In ancient times, people would dust themselves with ashes to show their sorrow for their sins.

The significance of the 40 days refers to Jesus fasting and praying in the desert. Moses also repented and fasted for 40 days after the making of the golden calf. Jews also have a 40 day period of repentance during their high holy days leading up to Yom Kippur.

In Ireland, Ash Wednesday is national no-smoking day.