Since I'm researching Catholic traditions along with my husband's ancestry, I decided to learn about Catholic customs surrounding Easter. I recall that when Charlie and I visited his parents in the early years of our marriage, during the period preceding Easter, his parents would abstain from meat on Fridays. They strictly adhered to this and told me it was part of their religious custom. I didn't ask them to explain then, but now I'm curious. What is the relevance of abstaining from meat? What does "Lent" mean? By browsing some Catholic web sites, I found information regarding Catholic traditions surrounding Easter. If any of this information is in error, please correct me. I am in the learning process and I realize that often traditions are variable in different regions of the world.
From the information I read, Lent is a 40-day preparation for Easter Sunday. It is one of the major seasons of the Catholic church and is marked by prayer, fasting, abstinence and almsgiving. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, which always falls 46 days before Easter (Sundays are not included in the count from Ash Wednesday until the end of Lent, thus explaining the discrepancy between the 40 and 46 day count). While Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation, Roman Catholics are encouraged to attend Mass on that day to mark the beginning of the Lenten season. During Mass, the ashes which give Ash Wednesday its name are distributed. The ashes are made by burning the blessed palms that were distributed the previous year on Palm Sunday; many churches ask their parishioners to return any palms that they took home so that they can be burned. After the priest blesses the ashes and sprinkles them with holy water, the faithful come forward to receive them. The priest dips his right thumb in the ashes and, making the Sign of the Cross on each person's forehead, says, "Remember, man, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return" (or a variation on those words). The distribution of ashes reminds the parishioners of their own mortality and calls them to repentance. In the early Church, Ash Wednesday was the day on which those who had sinned, and who wished to be readmitted to the Church, would begin their public penance. The ashes that they receive are a reminder of our their sinfulness, and many Catholics leave them on their foreheads all day as a sign of humility.
I also read that before Vatican II, Catholics were required to abstain from meat every Friday, as a form of penance in honor of the death of Jesus Christ on the Cross on Good Friday. Since Catholics are normally allowed to eat meat, this prohibition is very different from the dietary laws of the Old Testament or of other religions today. In the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 10: 9-16), St. Peter has a vision in which God reveals that Christians can eat any food. So, when church parishioners abstain, it's not because the food is impure; they're voluntarily giving up something good for their spiritual benefit.
In general, Lent ends on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter Sunday, which is the 46th day since Ash Wednesday, but the 40th day of the Lenten fast.
I now have a clearer understanding of the relevance of Ash Wednesday and Easter in the Catholic Church. The knowledge of Catholic traditions and customs is not only for my own benefit, but for my future generations who may one day decide to read about their French and Italian ancestors. The customs of our ancestors are part of who they were, as people. Their culture was widely based on their religious beliefs and practices and often played a role in their decisions and lifestyle.