Why Do Poles Have Ash Sprinkled on their Heads?
Popielec, or Ash Wednesday, is the day when ashes are sprinkled upon the heads of worshippers in the churches of Poland.
This ceremony is well known to Roman Catholics, yet it might seem strange to others. On Wednesday, the first day of Lent, during mass, priest sprinkles parishioners’ heads with ashes and says the words from the Bible ‘From dust you have come and to dust you will return’ or ‘repent and believe in the Gospel’.
This rite is not only performed in Poland, but in practically every Catholic church in the world. The only difference is that in Africa and the United States Catholic priests do not sprinkle the head with ashes, but instead draw the sign of the cross in ashes on the forehead.
Interestingly, Greek Catholics do not have such a tradition at all, but it is seen in some Protestant churches.
Ash – a symbol of mortality
The practice of sprinkling the head with ashes existed before the emergence of Christianity. It was a symbol of mourning for the dead in Ancient Greece and Egypt. Ash served as a reminder that none of us are immortal and sooner or later we will become dust, ash.
For Christians, this ceremony was originally connected with the act of public confession. In our day, followers of the Catholic or Orthodox churches confess alone with a priest, but this was not always the case. The famous German theologian Karl Rahner wrote:
The institution of confession underwent significant changes. So significant that, if it wasn’t recorded in writing, some modern Christians simply wouldn’t believe me. For example, Saint Augustine never went to confession in his life. For several centuries, Christians could only confess their sins once in their lives.
In the 1st century CE, ash became an integral part of the rite of public confession.
Until the 6th century, public confession would happen something like this: Christians who committed serious crimes would exit the church together with the whole congregation. They would take turns talking about their sins in front of everyone, and then the priest would sprinkle ashes on their heads. After this they would lie face down on the ground and everyone would pray for them.
This way, the entire congregation found out who among them had, for example, cheated on their wife, committed theft or betrayed their friends. The first Christians adhered to the view that such public confessions could happen only once in a lifetime.
In the 6th century, however, a few congregations began to practice regular confessions alone with a priest. We learn about this from the Acts of the Synod of 589, which took place in Toledo. ‘It became known to us that in a few churches in Spain, priests departed from the norm and began to hold confession for people every time they committed a sin. In order to eliminate this revolting and indecent practice, the Synod calls you to return to the former method of confession’, the Acts read. In spite of this protest, public confessions and the sprinkling of ashes that accompanied them in time stopped with time.
Ashes were ‘legalized’ in 1091 by Pope Urban II. At the Synod the head of the Catholic Church recommended that priests sprinkle ashes on the heads of believers on the first day of Lent. Interestingly, this pope would give the impetus for the Crusades just four years later.
Ash Wednesday in Poland
According to polls, around 85% of Polish citizens are Catholic. The tradition of going to church on Popielec, or Ash Wednesday, is alive here and very popular. Despite the fact that the Wednesday Lent begins is a work day, Poles still tend to go to church en masse on Popielec and take part in the rite.
Once, this day was called Introductory Wednesday (Wstępna Środa). Often Poles would celebrate and enjoy themselves all day. Then at night they would go to church where ashes would be sprinkled on their heads and the 40-day fast would begin.
The tradition is different now. On this day, the church asks parishioners to observe a strict fast, all partying and holidays must end on Tuesday. In a few regions of Poland, it was once common to eat a special Lenten version of ‘żurek’ soup on Ash Wednesday, however today few Poles make this soup for this occasion.
There is still another forgotten tradition connected with the beginning of Lent. A few centuries ago a holiday known as ‘mid-Lent’ was observed in Polish villages. On the day when the first half of Lent was over, boys would run through the village, banging wooden blocks together and would break clay pots filled with ashes on the doors of the houses. For this reason, ’mid-Lent’ is also often called the Day of Broken Pots.
Written by Żenia Klimakin, 28 Feb 2017; translated by KA, 28 Feb 2017