According to Wikipedia, the word Lent is a shortened version of an Old English word that meant “spring season”, but in places where Christianity was already established, it came to mean the time marking (approximately) 40 days before Easter. Doesn’t sound too complicated, but of course it is.
First of all, Carnival Season, perhaps emanating from pagan traditions, actually sets the stage for Lent. In Christian traditions the carnival calendar begins on January 6th (also known as Epiphany, or Three Kings Day or the Twelfth Day of Christmas) and culminates with Mardi Gras (“Fat Tuesday”, or Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Tuesday), the last night of the party season in which to indulge before denying oneself certain pleasures during Lent.
Ash Wednesday, the day following Mardi Gras, begins the Lenten period when observers are asked to refrain from indulgences to better understand Jesus’ tests and trials prior to his final suffering on the cross. The ashes placed on one’s forehead during a service marking the day are a stark reminder of mortality, as a priest intones “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return”.
And what’s with the 40 days (or 46 if Sundays are included by some traditions in the countdown to Easter)? The number forty shows up more than a dozen times in the Bible, representing periods of testing and trouble in a variety of contexts. They are all gloomy times, but during Lent the weather corroborates that feeling, no matter the level of participation in observances.
I’ve adhered to the traditions blindly my entire life without much appreciation until visiting Mexico some years ago, where pageantry and devotion are especially meaningful. The color purple, used as a representation of both mourning and royalty, richly decorates churches and street altars, and flower markets sell bundles of purple blooms to take home as a daily reminder that repentance is an ongoing project.
I liked these traditions before, but now I love them.