Red is the new black; at least it was for one day.

This year, by virtue of an unusual confluence of events, St. Valentine’s Day happened to coincide with Ash Wednesday, a day when Catholics and Christians worldwide have ashes placed on their forehead. So the combination of black ashes and red sartorial statements made for an unusual fashion duet on Ash Wednesday, which is one of the holiest days of the liturgical year.

Although officially not a holy day of obligation, Ash Wednesday, which signals the start of the solemn season of Lent, is a day Catholics flock to churches to participate in a practice that actually is of non-Christian origin, and not officially accepted in the beliefs of the Catholic Church until the Council of Nicaea in 325. That same council also set the 40-day period as the standard length of Lent.

In 601 Pope Gregory added six more days to Lent, moving the beginning of the season from the Fourth Sunday of the year to Ash Wednesday, 46 days before Easter. By doing so, the pope allowed for 40 days of fasting, with six Sundays counting as feast days.

Pope Gregory also began the tradition of marking parishioners’ foreheads with ashes in the shape of a cross.

Ash Wednesday is not mentioned in the Bible, but sprinkling oneself with ashes to show sorrow for sins certainly dates back to biblical times. It should be noted there are more than 40 biblical passages associating ashes with mourning and grief.

It was not unusual to dust oneself with ashes and fast while repenting. During those times, people would sit in ashes, sprinkle them upon their heads, roll around in them or perhaps even mingle them with their food and drink to show their repentance.

Lent was much harsher in those early years. On Ash Wednesday, the bishop would bless the hair covering which penitents were to wear during their 40 days of penance, and then the ashes were spread over each individual. While the Seven Penitential Psalms were being recited by the faithful, the penitents were turned out of the church, just as Adam was turned out of the Garden of Eden for his sin, and not allowed to reenter until Maundy (Holy) Thursday.

Ashes used by the priest are from the burning of palms from Palm Sunday of the previous year. The ashes are sprinkled with holy water and typically fragranced with incense. Following the tradition of Pope Gregory, the priest marks the sign of the cross on a person’s forehead, speaking the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

Even non-Christians and those excommunicated from the church are invited to receive ashes.