I learned from twitter that today is Ash Wednesday. Looking at the several hashtags dedicated to the fun times some people are having today, I was left feeling bemused at the gulf between this ‘fun’ and my own memories. Receiving the ashes is now COOL in some parts. Catholics joke about what they’re giving up for Lent. One could ask why they can’t work up just as much enthusiasm for DOING something for Lent, like volunteer in a homeless shelter, campaign against climate change, adopt a stray dog, anything, as long as it’s positive and doesn’t end with the Easter chocolate fest. But that’s by the by.
Ash Wednesday brings back memories, mostly unpleasant of being a Catholic child in a virulently Methodist town. It was bad enough for us just being Irish Catholics without doing cranky things to draw attention to it like having the bishop smear grease over our foreheads. We were given pep talks every year about the sacred aspect of the greasy black stuff, and above all, it was beaten into us that we MUST NOT TOUCH IT. Those ashes were holy, sacred, and invested with the superpower of causing instant ejection from the club, a state of mortal sin and eternal damnation if touched with grubby fingers.
So, how did we get rid of them? we asked. We didn’t. They were supposed to wear off naturally. Naturally me arse. As soon as somebody in power, like the priest, teacher or a nun had witnessed the dirty smear across our childish brow, a quick swipe with a coat sleeve got rid of most of it.
Ash Wednesday paled into insignificance though compared with the supreme ignominy of the May Procession. Many of us must still have nightmares about being forced as small children, to parade through our equivalent of the Bronx, the streets lined with stony-faced, disapproving locals. The priest in full regalia led the way behind the great statue of Our Lady decorated and splendiferous in all her nineteenth century kitschy glory. The girls followed, tricked out in white frocks, veils and shoes, then the boys in white shirts and blue sashes. We walked in a slow march, singing the most plaintive, lugubrious hymns to Mary. It was dreadful. And cold. May in Yorkshire can be brisk, windy and wet. Veils would blow off, the boys’ sashes would come undone, and we’d be perished with cold.
The horrors of the May Procession didn’t outlive the 1960s by much, but obviously some of the lesser humiliations have done, and have become popular. It’s a funny world we live in.