Lent has been observed since early Christianity as a period of fasting, reflection, and penitence for those who would undergo baptism on Easter, and a time for all sinners to repent. Although there are differences in practice and expression of recognizing Lent, most major Christian denominations still observe the season today.
Dates of Lent
Lent was originally observed for six weeks excluding Sundays (36 days), but this was eventually extended to 40 days in order to parallel Christ's temptation in the wilderness. In the Western churches, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday (six and a half weeks before Easter). In Eastern churches Lent begins the Monday seven weeks before Easter and ends the Friday nine days before Easter.
History of Lent
In the early history of the church, strict fasting was observed throughout this period. One meal was allowed per day, in the evening, and meat, fish, eggs, and butter were forbidden. Strict observance of fasting was discontinued among Roman Catholics during World War II, and today is rarely observed throughout the Lenten Season.
Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are still fast days for the Catholic Church, and the emphasis on Lent as a period of penitence remains. Many Christians, especially Catholics, choose to give up a single indulgence (such as chocolate, french fries, TV, or alcohol) for the 40-day period as a sign of repentance and an exercise in self-control.
Eastern Churches continue to observe a strict fast during "Great Lent," which begins on the Monday of the seventh week before Easter and ends on the Friday preceding Good Friday. As in the early church, meat, fish, eggs, and butter are forbidden, as are wine, oil, and dairy products.
The day before Lent is Mardi Gras, which was originally a day to use up Lent-prohibited foods but today is associated mostly with secular partying. The first day of Lent is Ash Wednesday, a solemn day on which worshippers' foreheads are marked with crosses made of ash.