Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday Coincide this Year: What’s a Catholic to Do?
News Story by Clemente Lisi | Religion Unplugged
Not everyone will be enjoying chocolate this Valentine’s Day.
For the first time since 2018, Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day fall on the same day.
In fact, this rare occurrence is taking place once again in less than a week. It has happened three times in the last century – 1923, 1934 and 1945 – and will happen again in 2029 for the final time this century.
“For some people, it could be a little confusing,” the Rev. John Gordon of the Archdiocese of Newark said when the same thing happened six years ago. “Do I fast, or do I eat my chocolate?”
For many practicing Christians, the start of Lent is highlighted by fasting and abstaining from meat. That means many won’t be enjoying Valentine’s Day the same way this year. For Catholics, it also means attending Mass and receiving ashes on one’s forehead as a reminder of death. It is an act of remembrance ahead of the start of Lent.
Lenten abstinence symbolizes Jesus’ sacrifice during his 40 day desert fast
Canon Law 1251 states that abstinence from meat and fasting are to be observed on both Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. The general guidelines for Lenten abstinence encourage Catholics to give up items such as television or indulgent desserts to symbolize Jesus’ sacrifice during the 40 days He spent in the desert enduring Satan’s temptation.
“I love Valentine’s Day, but Ash Wednesday is a priority, especially if you’re a serious Catholic,” said Kathy Gonzalez, a practicing Catholic who lives in New York. “I can always have chocolate before that day and eat plenty of it on Easter Sunday.”
Many exiting St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York said they were unaware the two holidays fell on the same day. When told, Nick Sacco, 80, said he planned to go to Mass in the morning to get his ashes, then maybe eat some chocolate in the evening.
“I will do both,” he said. “Why not?”
No dispensations for chocolate or meat
Unlike St. Patrick’s Day, which sometimes falls on a Friday during Lent when Catholics can’t eat meat, your local diocese isn’t going to offer up any dispensations like they typically do so people can eat corned beef and cabbage.
For Catholics and many other Christians of other denominations, anyone age 14 and up must abstain from consuming meat. On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday: everyone age 18 to 59 must fast, unless exempt due to usually a medical reason.
“Ash Wednesday is way more important than Valentine’s Day, so it gets first dibs on your time. If Valentine’s Day is important to you or to the person you love, there’s nothing wrong with that! You just move it, and celebrate it some other day,” wrote Simcha Fisher in a piece for OSV News. “This is just what it’s like being an adult: Sometimes things just don’t work out, and you have to be flexible.”
Unlike Christmas, Easter is a “moveable feast” and not fixed to a particular date on the calendar. That means that Easter each year — and therefore Ash Wednesday which is the 40 days that precedes it – is determined by the date of the spring equinox.
The Catholic church, when it was working out when holidays would take place at the First Council of Nicaea in the year 325 C.E., came up with a timeline of reckoning Easter that was based in part on the full moon as it pertained to Passover.
More often than not, Easter takes place on the Sunday following the Passover full moon. The Eastern Orthodox church uses a different calendar.
Valentine’s Day and its Christian roots
Valentine’s Day, meanwhile, also has Christian roots, but those have been largely forgotten by the commercialization that has come with chocolate hearts and Hallmark greeting cards.
The Catholic church, for example, celebrates the Feast of St. Valentine in honor of the third century saint who was killed for performing Christian marriage ceremonies during the Roman Empire.
In fact, Christian believe that St. Valentine was a priest in Rome during the third century. Emperor Claudius II had banned marriages for young men, believing that single men made better soldiers. St. Valentine defied this decree and continued to perform marriages for young couples in secret. When his actions were discovered, he was arrested and eventually sentenced to death.
During his imprisonment, he is said to have fallen in love with the jailer’s daughter, and on the day of his execution, he sent her a love letter signed “from your Valentine.” This expression is believed to have inspired the tradition of exchanging love notes on Valentine’s Day.
Another legend suggests that St. Valentine was a Christian martyr who was imprisoned for helping Christians escape harsh Roman prisons. According to this narrative, Valentine fell in love with the jailer’s daughter and sent her letters while in prison. This story, too, contributed to the association of Valentine’s Day with expressions of love.
Grew in popularity in Middle Ages
The celebration of St. Valentine’s Day as a day of love and romance gained popularity in the Middle Ages. The English poet Geoffrey Chaucer, in the 14th century, wrote a poem linking the day to the mating season of birds. This idea further solidified the connection between love and Feb. 14.
Over time, the tradition of exchanging handwritten notes, known as “valentines,” became widespread in England and other parts of Europe. By the 18th century, it was common for friends and lovers to exchange small tokens of affection and handwritten notes on Valentine’s Day.
The Industrial Revolution during the 19th century paved the way for the mass production of cards and other tokens of love such as flowers and jewelry. Esther Howland has often been credited with producing the first mass-produced valentines in the United States in the 1840s.
Shrove Tuesday and pancakes
It should also be noted that the day before Valentine’s Day on Feb. 13 is also known as Shrove Tuesday.
Also known as “Pancake Day,” it is observed in many Christian countries through participating in confession and absolution, the ritual burning of the previous year’s Holy Week palms and finalizing one’s Lenten sacrifice. Eating pancakes and other sweets is also a part of it. The expression “Shrove Tuesday” comes from the word shrive, which means “absolve.”
Shrove Tuesday is observed by many Christians, including Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists and Catholics who “make a special point of self-examination, of considering what wrongs they need to repent, and what amendments of life or areas of spiritual growth they especially need to ask God’s help in dealing with.”
The day is celebrated differently around the world. In parts of the U.S. and the United Kingdom and Ireland, Shrove Tuesday is also known as “Pancake Day” or “Pancake Tuesday,” as it became a traditional custom to eat pancakes as a meal.
In Latin nations, the day has been called Mardi Gras — meaning “Fat Tuesday” — after the type of celebratory meal that day. Rio de Janeiro and Venice celebrate carnival — something also done in New Orleans, a former French colony — with elaborate costumes and drinking.
In other places, however, it about the food. In Spain, it is known as “día de la tortilla” — Spanish for “omelette day” — since eggs made with some sausage or pork fat are eaten ahead of Lent.
Clemente Lisi is the executive editor of Religion Unplugged. He previously served as deputy head of news at the New York Daily News and a longtime reporter at The New York Post. Follow him on X @ClementeLisi.