If you live outside the UK, you probably haven't heard of Shrove Tuesday. But you probably know it by its other name, Mardi Gras. Pancakes were originally eaten on Shrove Tuesday -- the Tuesday before Lent -- to use up eggs and fat before the fast of Lent. Today, these pancakes are generally made of eggs, milk and flour. The word "shrove" comes from "shrive," meaning "the confessions of sins" -- something done in preparation for Lent.
Ash Wednesday is a day of fasting that gets its name from the practice of sprinkling ashes over those engaging in the fast of Lent. Has anyone ever apologized to you by saying, "Let me put on my ashes and sackcloth..."? This is where that saying originated. Those wishing to receive the sacrament of penance were known as "penitents." They wore sackcloth and were required to remain apart from the Christian community until Maundy Thursday. This practice fell into disuse during the eighth, ninth and 10th centuries, when the beginning of Lent was symbolized by placing ashes on the heads of the entire congregation.
Today, some Christians have a cross put on their forehead in ashes on Ash Wednesday. The ashes are usually made from the previous year's blessed palm fronds from Palm Sunday, and are usually wet with holy water before being used.
The name Lent comes from the Middle English lenten, meaning "spring." Lent signifies 40 days of fasting in order to imitate the fast of Jesus Christ after his baptism (the Epiphany). Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, 46 days before Easter Sunday, when it ends. (*Because they are celebratory days -- honoring the Resurrection, the six Sundays that occur during the period of Lent do not count as part of the 40-day observance.)