On Ash Wednesday, we go to church and are marked with ashes with the cross of Christ, and reminded to "Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return."
Before beginning to work in churches I never thought to wonder: "Where do the ashes for Ash Wednesday come from?"
The short answer is easy: They are usually made from the leftover palms that were used in last year's Palm Sunday service. But still ... how do they get from Palm Sunday to Ash Wednesday?
Two answers: 1) You can purchase ashes from any number of liturgical goods suppliers. They come prepackaged and ready to go. 2) Someone in the church (the pastor or priest, the head of the altar guild, etc) can make your own ashes. Naturally, the church-geeks among us opt for option 2.
So how do you do it? Here is my process:
Lay out the palms after Palm Sunday. Ok, I usually don't get to them until after Easter, but still. I like to find a spot in the sun, where they can can dry out well and quickly. As they are first drying out, rotate them every week or two, or else you will wind up with mold.
Protip: Lay out your palms on a large garbage bag or something similar. Once they are dry, this will allow you to pick them up without leaves going everywhere.
Prepare something to burn the palms in. I use a large stock pot, lined in tinfoil. You can also just use tinfoil is you get it to bowl up right. Or whatever else works for you.
Strip the palm leaves off of the stems. I just grab the top of the palm and pull down along the stem, pulling off a handful at time. Then, cut the leaves into little bits, the smaller the better. I use scissors, you can also use a kitchen chopper thingy (Magic Bullet, I think?).
Burn, baby burn.
Get out of the wind as much as possible. I use a stick or something similar to turn over the palms and burn as much as possible. Warning: Burning palms smell like a certain herb recently legalized in a few States. You will get said smell in all of your clothes.
Sift out the big bits to get yourself a nice ash. I use a strainer. Pouring the ashes into the strainer over a stainless steel bowl, I use a spoon as a sort of pestle to crush the ashes through the strainer. You will be left with some larger bits and some that did not burn, which you can just throw away. Some people use an actual mortal and pestle for this step. Others use a flour sifter (but heed the warning above about kitchen utensils!).
Protip: Go slowly! This stirs up a lot of ash. If you rush, it will go everywhere. Go slow.
I store my ashes dry - they last longer that way. On Ash Wednesday I use a smaller container and mix the ash with oil before applying to people's foreheads. You can also apply the ash dry, or you can use an oil stock and put oil on your "crossing finger" before putting ash on the forehead.
Protip: Mixing oil and ashes is an art. Only add the smallest bit of oil at a time, or you will get goop. And nobody likes to be gooped on Ash Wednesday.
This is also a great pre-Lenten activity for youth or confirmation groups (with plenty of supervision!). Remember: Less is more. With only about 1/3 of the left over palms from last year, I made enough ashes for about 3 years.
Oh. In addition to purchasing your ashes or making your own, there is a 3rd option. Find a colleague who is a liturgy-geek. Chances are that he or she will make way more than is needed every year, and will happily share with you.