Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent. It falls 40 weekdays before Easter (Sundays aren’t counted in the 40 days of Lent). Ash Wednesday takes its name from ashes, a traditional Jewish sign of penitence. In some liturgical traditions, palm fronds or palm crosses from the previous year’s Palm Sunday are burned, and then the ashes are applied to the worshiper’s forehead on Ash Wednesday as a token of their commitment to observe a “holy Lent.”
Ancient Christian tradition was to observe Lent with fasting (a discipline of going without food at certain times), study, self-examination, confession and prayer. During this time, candidates for Holy Baptism were prepared for baptism on Easter Eve. Many churches continue those traditions.
The traditional color for altar hangings and clergy vestments during Lent is purple. Traditionally, altars are decorated in a plainer style, perhaps with the omission of flowers. Because Lent was a time for rigorous fasting, Christians often observed the last day before Lent as a time to celebrate and to use up leavening. Hence, Mardi Gras (“Fat Tuesday”), also known as “Shrove Tuesday.”
Fasting is to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday by all Catholics who are 18 years of age, but not yet 59. Those who are bound to fast may take only one full meal. Two smaller meals are permitted if necessary to maintain strength according to each one’s needs, but eating solid foods between meals is not permitted. Abstinence from meat is to be observed by all Catholics 14 years or older on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and on all Fridays in Lent. The determination of certain days as obligatory days of penance should not be understood as limiting the occasions for Christian penance.
–from the Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Church bulletin.