Even in the early church, great carnivals were held prior to Ash Wednesday, when Christians would overindulge before having to fast and repent during Lent.
Those carnivals were handed down through the centuries even as the church relaxed some of its restrictions during lent, and "carnival" became a part of many cultures in celebrations such as Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
As the name Mardi Gras implies, the festival ends on "Fat Tuesday" with great feasting. Many local churches today host pancake suppers on that night.
Ash Wednesday is characterized by a worship service in which the minister imposes palm ashes in the form of a cross, while reciting the phrase, "from dust were you made, and dust you shall be."
The ashes were used as early as the fourth century. Those accused of serious sin, whether of humble or noble birth stood barefoot before the cathedral with bowed heads. The bishop would pass among the people, assigning acts of penance. The sinners would then enter the church and before the altar, recite seven penitential psalms.
Then, each sinner would come before the bishop, who would place his hands on the sinner's head, sprinkle him with water, throw ashes on him and dress him in a sackcloth tunic.
They left the church and were forbidden to enter until Holy Thursday. They had to spend the time separated from their families, living in a monastery, performing manual labor and praying.
Through the centuries, the practice evolved until even the devout took part. By the 11th century, the practice was in general use.
During the Reformation, many Protestant churches discontinued the practice of imposing ashes on the faithful, but with time, some Protestant churches have reinstated the practice, along with the observance of Lent.
Catholic and many Protestant churches today observe not only Ash Wednesday, but hold weekly Lenten services until Easter. Some include a soup supper, Bible study, and/or worship service.
A major portion of Lent focused on fasting in centuries past. It's where today's ritual of "giving something up for Lent," originated. Today, Christians often "give up" such items as cigarettes, chocolate, coffee or soda pop. Sometimes, Lent means adding something, like daily devotions or a time set aside in prayer and meditation.
In the early church, Christians gave up breakfast and supper during the full 40 days. Later, that changed to the Fridays of Lent. Christians were to stay away from flesh meat and all dairy products during Lent.
Since Christians could eat no dairy products, many breads were restricted. To allow the faithful some form of bread, the pretzel was developed in the 5th century. This bread, made from a dough of flour, salt and water, was available only during Lent. The pretzel was formed with the two arms crossed in prayer.
The pretzel remained a very seasonal food until the 19th century, when its religious significance was forgotten and it became more readily available.