With the recent celebration of Mardi Gras - "Fat Tuesday" - the season of Lent is upon us. As Mardi Gras is a celebration of indulgences and feasting, Lent is a period of self-denial and fasting.
In the Catholic tradition the observance of Lent was virtually universal. Following the Protestant reformation only the Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians and Anglicans (Episcopalians) still observe Lent. It marks a 40-day period beginning on "Ash Wednesday" (the day following "Fat Tuesday") and leading up to the Holy Week of Easter, so the dates change every year as the date of Easter does. Easter falls on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox, based on the date of the Jewish Passover.
The formalization of Lent came following the legalization of Christianity in 313 c.e., and was mentioned for timing of one of the biennial provincial synods by the Council of Nicea in 325 c.e. But there is little evidence that ordinary Christians were to observe a fast until the fifth century. Modern scholars note significant diversity in practices leading up to Easter during the first centuries of Christianity, so it is doubtful that the Lenten fast was part of the original Apostolic tradition. The nature and duration of fasting differs as well. Some give up all meat, some eat only fish or birds, and some few practice a full fast for a day or more.
The term "Ash Wednesday" to designate the beginning of Lent comes from the practice of placing ashes mixed with oil on one's head or forehead. The period includes the fasting as well as charity and prayer. Modern Christians who observe Lent tend to give up an indulgence or go on a diet.
The word 'Lent' comes from the Anglo-Saxon words lencten, meaning "Spring" and lenctentid, literally "Springtide" and "March" - which is the month in which the majority of the Lenten season falls. Some scholars believe that the Anglo-Saxon background is associated with the Pagan festivals and imagery usurped by the early Church for the resurrection observance. The term 'Easter' is itself taken from the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre. The Germanic Pagans practiced a similar observance of spring, named for their goddess Ostara.