It was a familiar British voice on the BBC that first introduced me to the concept of Dismal Days. As a very frugal couple newly married and living abroad for the first time, my wife and I had little entertainment other than the radio. Doctoral candidates didn’t have time for television, and besides, in Britain you had to pay for a television license in addition to the electricity it would cost to watch it. We didn’t even use our pathetic wall heater in winter. When the BBC 4 announcer mentioned that it was a medieval dismal day, my wife and I exchanged bemused glances. The concept has become part of our mental warehouses. Today is not a medieval dismal day in that sense, but Ash Wednesday brings a dreariness all its own. As a young Fundamentalist I didn’t know about this particular day, but when I attached myself to the local Methodist congregation I learned a history lesson.
Methodists descended directly from Anglicans (Church of England). And as I learned in my ill-fated Nashotah House days, some Anglicans believe they never really separated from Rome. Ash Wednesday has now become a widely recognized day of mourning and repentance (as if all days weren’t such) and for many years I submitted to the ashes. It was always with wonder, however, since Jesus purportedly said not to show any outward signs when you are lamenting. I wondered where the tradition began. The earliest references to Ash Wednesday date from the papacy of Gregory the Great, in the eighth century of the Common Era. It is just like the Middle Ages to add drear to an already dark and cheerless season. Lent was originally intended for reflection, but in the macabre mind of the Dark Ages it became an excuse for utter misery.
Dismal Days are actually far older. In origin we again have the Romans to thank, although they blamed the Egyptians. In Roman society two days each month were deemed infortuitous to begin important ventures. In fact, the word “dismal” derives from the Latin for “evil days.” The idea that certain days are especially gloomy is a hangover from superstition that many rational people have now completely disregarded. Many of those rational people, however, will be spotted today with ashes on their otherwise hygienically cleansed foreheads.