Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent. It is the day when priests make the sign of the cross on the parishioners' foreheads using ashes made from the palms consecrated the year before, hence the name, Ash Wednesday.
At one time in the past, it was the custom for any Christian who had committed a serious sin, to perform penance in public, so as to be forgiven. The period of the year when this penance would be performed was the forty days of Lent. As befitted sinners, wearing sackcloth and ashes, during that time of penitence, the penitent would wear a hair shirt, over which the local Bishop or Priest would sprinkle ashes made from the previous year's palm fronds. Then, after reciting the Seven Penitential Psalms, the penitents would be forced out of the church (in mimicry of Adam and Eve being forced out of the Garden of Eden because of their transgressions). They would not be allowed to re-enter the church until they had performed their penance during the forty days of Lent.
The name Lent is derived from the phrase Lengten-tide meaning "Spring", the time of year when the days lengthen.
In 1511, The Festyvall, or Sermons on Sondays and Holidais Taken Out Of The Golden Legend, a book published by Wynkyn de Worde at London, stated that: Ye shall begyn your faste upon Ashe Wednesdaye. That daye must ye come to holy churche, and take ashes of the Preestes hondes, and thynke on the wordes well that he sayeth over your hedes, Memento, homo, quia cinis es, et in cinerem reverteris, have mynde, thou man, of ashes thou art comen, and to ashes thou shalte tourne agayne.
A proclamation issued by the Church of England on 26 February 1539 stated: On Ashe Wenisday it shall be declared that these ashes be gyven, to put every Christen man in remembrance of penaunce at the begynnynge of Lent, and that he is but erthe and ashes.
Accepting the sign of the cross on his/her forehead serves as a parishioner's outward symbol of repentance to God, i.e. turning away from sinful things.
Beginning with Ash Wednsday, and continuing throughout the Lenten season, parishioners were not permitted to eat any meat, flour, dairy products or eggs. Two small meals each day were permitted, but they had to consist of items other than the proscribed, such as fish or other seafood.
As with Shrove Tuesday, Ash Wednesday was a day for merriment for children and the young at heart. In a game similar to "throwing at cocks", young men would throw sticks at a life-size puppet that was called Jack-O'-Lent.
Children would go from house to house, beating on the doors and calling out for scraps of food:
Herrings, herrings, white and red,
Ten a penny, Lent's dead;
Rise, dame, and give an egg
Or else a piece of bacon.
One for Peter, two for Paul,
Three for Jack a Lent's all.
The house wife who gave the children some herrings, eggs or pieces of bacon was praised by the children and left to go back to her business. But the housewife who scorned the children and shooed them away from her door without a gift of food was greeted with shouts of Here sits a bad wife, The devil take her life; Sit her upon a swivell, And send her to the devill. And the children, before leaving, would do some sort of devilment to the housewife. The door latch might be cut, or a keyhole would be stopped up with mud.