Ash Wednesday, in the Western Christian calendar, is the first day of Lent and occurs forty-six days (forty days not counting Sundays) before Easter. It is a moveable fast, falling on a different date each year because it is dependent on the date of Easter. It can occur as early as 4 February or as late as 10 March.On Philly.com today it talks about Lent as:
Ash Wednesday derives its name from the practice of placing ashes on the foreheads of adherents as a sign of repentance. The ashes used are typically gathered after the Palm Crosses from the previous year's Palm Sunday are burned. In the liturgical practice of some churches, the ashes are mixed with the Oil of the Catechumens (one of the sacred oils used to anoint those about to be baptized), though some churches use ordinary oil. This paste is used by the minister who presides at the service to make the sign of the cross, first upon his or her own forehead and then on those of congregants. The minister administering ashes recites the words: "Remember (O man) that you are dust, and to dust you shall return", or "Repent, and believe the Gospel."
The fasting associated with Lent spawned pre-Lenten celebrations such as Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) and Carnivale as a last chance to eat, drink and be merry before the 40 days of self denial began.
Tradition holds that a Philadelphia staple - the soft pretzel - was created by a monk as a Lenten food at a time when the faithful abstained from meat and animal products, such as milk and eggs.
While Lent has traditionally been observed by giving up pleasures, such as sweets, churches now encourage the faithful to something during the season that will help others or enrich their spiritual lives.