John W. Fenton writes that "by the end of the 10th century, it was customary in Western Europe (but not yet in Rome) for all the faithful to receive ashes on the first day of the Lenten fast. In 1091, this custom was then ordered by Pope Urban II at the council of Benevento to be extended to the church in Rome. Not long after that, the name of the day was referred to in the liturgical books as "Feria Quarta Cinerum" (i.e., Ash Wednesday)."
The article on Ash Wednesday in the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition states that, after the Protestant Reformation, the ashes ceremony was not forbidden in the Church of England; liturgical scholar Blair Meeks notes that the Lutheran and Anglican denominations "never lapsed in this observance". It was even prescribed under King Henry VIII in 1538 and under King Edward VI in 1550, but it fell out of use in many areas after 1600. In 1536, the Ten Articles issued by authority of Henry VIII commended "the observance of various rites and ceremonies as good and laudable, such as clerical vestments, a sprinkling of holy water, bearing of candles on Candlemas-day, giving of ashes on Ash-Wednesday".
After Henry's death in January 1547, Thomas Cranmer, within the same year, "procured an order from the Council to forbid the carrying of candles on Candlemas-day, and the use of ashes on Ash-Wednesday, and of palms on Palm-Sunday, as superstitious ceremonies", an order that was issued only for the ecclesiastical province of Canterbury, of which Cranmer was archbishop. The Church Cyclopædia states that the "English office had adapted the very old Salisbury service for Ash-Wednesday, prefacing it with an address and a recital of the curses of Mount Ebal, and then with an exhortation uses the older service very nearly as it stood."
Since the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in 1582, Ash Wednesday has never occurred on Leap Year Day (29 February) but it will do so for the first time in 2096. The only other years of the third millennium that will have Ash Wednesday on 29 February are 2468, 2688, 2840, and 2992. (Ash Wednesday falls on 29 February if and only if Easter is on 15 April in a leap year.)
Ash Wednesday is exactly 46 days before Easter Sunday, a moveable feast based on the cycles of the moon. The earliest date Ash Wednesday can occur is 4 February (which is only possible during a common year with Easter Sunday on 22 March), which happened in 1598, 1693, 1761, and 1818 and will next occur in 2285. The latest date Ash Wednesday can occur is 10 March (when Easter Sunday falls on 25 April) which occurred in 1666, 1734, 1886 and 1943 and will next occur in 2038.
In the Republic of Ireland, Ash Wednesday is National No Smoking Day. The date was chosen because quitting smoking ties in with giving up a luxury for Lent, and because of the link between ash and smoking. In the United Kingdom, No Smoking Day was held for the first time on Ash Wednesday in 1984 but is now fixed as the second Wednesday in March.
Anglicans and Catholics in parts of the United Kingdom such as Sunderland, are offering Ashes to Go together: Marc Lyden-Smith, the priest of Saint Mary's Church, stated that the ecumenical effort is a "tremendous witness in our city, with Catholics and Anglicans working together to start the season of Lent, perhaps reminding those who have fallen away from the Church, or have never been before, that the Christian faith is alive and active in Sunderland." The Catholic Student Association of Kent State University, based at the University Parish Newman Center, offered ashes to university students who were going through the Student Center of that institution in 2012, and Douglas Clark of St. Matthew's Roman Catholic Church in Statesboro, among others, have participated in Ashes to Go.
In 2013, churches not only in the United States but also at least one church each in the United Kingdom, Canada, and South Africa, participated in Ashes to Go. Outside of their church building, Saint Stephen Martyr Lutheran Church in Canton offered Ashes to Go for "believers whose schedules make it difficult to attend a traditional service" in 2016. In the United States itself 34 states and the District of Columbia had at least one church taking part. Most of these churches (parishes) were Episcopal, but there were also several Methodist churches, as well as Presbyterian and Catholic churches.
The 1969 revision of the Roman Rite inserted into the Mass the solemn ceremony of blessing ashes and placing them on heads, but also explicitly envisaged a similar solemn ceremony outside of Mass. The Book of Blessings contains a simple rite. While the solemn rite would normally be carried out within a church building, the simple rite could appropriately be used almost anywhere. While only a priest or deacon may bless the ashes, laypeople may do the placing of the ashes on a person's head. Even in the solemn rite, laymen or women may assist the priest in distributing the ashes. In addition, laypeople take blessed ashes left over after the collective ceremony and place them on the heads of the sick or of others who are unable to attend the blessing. (In 2014, Anglican Liverpool Cathedral likewise offered to impose ashes within the church without a solemn ceremony.)