Lent is a Christian period of recognition and self-examination that lasts 40 days and ends at Easter. It’s observed by Christians in different ways, but often involves some form of fasting or giving up a vice. Lent lasts for 40 days in recognition of Jesus’ time in the desert, where he faced temptation from the Devil.
The word “Lent” comes from the word “lencten,” an Anglo-Saxon word meaning spring. Traditionally, the purpose of Lent is to prepare Christian believers for the commemoration of the death and resurrection of Jesus. The period following Lent is known as Holy Week.
It’s not known exactly when Lent was first observed, but it’s likely that the time before Easter has always been considered important. There are records of people observing a similar period from almost the beginning of the church. In these early days, however, there was no set method of observance, and the duration of Lent hadn’t been set.
In A.D. 313, Christianity was declared legal by the Emperor Constantine. This slowly allowed church celebrations and traditions, such as Lent, to become more standardized. St. Athanasius was one of the first to ask his congregation to fast for 40 days in the lead up to the Holy Week. Other church leaders subsequently requested similar acts from their followers.
It wasn’t long before the period of 40 days had been set, but there was still a lot of variation in how Lent was observed. People in Rome, for example, fasted every day apart from Sunday, so Lent actually lasted for six weeks. Other Christians didn’t fast at all on the weekend, which meant Lent lasted for 8 weeks. Fasting rules usually forbid eating any animal products, although sometimes fish was considered an exception. In most churches, a person was allowed one meal per day.
Over time, the rules for fasting during Lent became less strict. This evolution began as a necessity, as it wasn’t possible for manual laborers to work all day without eating. Eventually, nearly all churches allowed people to eat fish, and before long meat could be eaten on most days during Lent.
Today, Lent starts with Ash Wednesday and lasts for 40 days. Fasting rules are much simpler than in the past, with many Christians only abstaining from eating meat on Good Friday and Ash Wednesday. Some churches also avoid eating meet on Fridays during Lent.