What Is Lent, and Why Do Christians Give Up Something for It?

By: Alia Hoyt  | 
Ash Wednesday commuter
In celebration of Ash Wednesday, Jonathan Randall Grant, of the Urban Village Church, rubs ashes on the forehead of a commuter outside of a subway station in the Logan Square neighborhood in Chicago. Scott Olson/Getty Images

For Western Christian churches that observe the church year, Lent is a time when people traditionally do penance by way of giving up something in their lives. Some of the most common things that people have decided to do without for Lent in recent years have been gossip, social media and swearing. But where did the idea of Lent come from?


Why Lent?

The word "Lent" is derived from an old English word meaning "spring" and is a period of penance and abstinence observed by many Christians. Lent usually begins on Ash Wednesday (itself a different date every year) and ends on Holy Thursday (the day before Good Friday when Christians commemorate Jesus Christ's crucifixion). That's a period of 40 days if you don't count Sundays. Lent is an homage to Jesus's 40 days spent fasting in the desert in preparation for his ministry on Earth.

The purpose of observing Lent is for Christians to prepare for the coming of Easter by getting closer to God and repenting of sins. So, the point of giving up something (i.e. fasting) is to do penance (a common practice used in many churches by which parishioners seek forgiveness), as well as to participate in some small way with Jesus' suffering in the desert.


Often, people elect to give up something they really enjoy or depend on, like cigarettes, alcohol, fast food or chocolate. Others choose to fast from practices that don't necessarily make them a better person, like gossiping or criticizing others.

Whatever you give up, intent is a big part of truly recognizing Lent. "Jesus calls us to fast, but simply tells us to do it for the right reasons. It should not be for our glory, but for God's," emailed Stephen Corrigan, who was a fourth-year Catholic seminarian at St. Peter's Catholic Church in Gloucester, England when we interviewed him in 2019. (He has since been ordained). "If we are doing something which is sinful then it would be good to try to stop doing it ... But something which is not sinful can be given up, not because it is unclean but because we are called to something greater."


The History of Lent

Lent was officially created during the Council of Nicaea in 325 C.E., a first-of-its kind gathering of representatives from all the major Christian sects. Originally, the rules around Lent were very strict. Those observing it were only allowed to eat one meal a day, and only in the evening. Meat, fish and animal products were off limits. But by the 1400s, Christians were allowed to eat by noon. Eventually, other foods (like fish) were allowed and in 1966, the Roman Catholic Church restricted fast days only to Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

Pope Gregory the Great created Ash Wednesday in the 600s, marking penitent Christians' foreheads with ashes at a special service on that day. Wearing ashes was a biblical symbol of repentance and a reminder of one's mortality. Ash Wednesday follows Fat Tuesday (also called Mardi Gras or Shrove Tuesday), the last day of eating rich or fatty foods before Lent.


Not all Christian denominations observe Lent. It's most often celebrated in the Roman Catholic Church as well as in some Protestant denominations, such as among Anglicans/Episcopalians and Methodists. Baptists and other evangelical denominations are less likely to observe Lent, as they say the practice is not mentioned in the Bible. Eastern Orthodox churches still incorporate much fasting in Lent, though they have a different time period for observance.

The practice of fasting for religious purposes isn't just a Christian one. "Muslims observe total daytime fasts from everything including water [for instance, during Ramadan]," emailed Rev. Peter Coxe, a Catholic priest who serves in the Diocese of Plymouth, England. "Jews have certain fast days (e.g. Yom Kippur, the day of Atonement) and seasons with dietary restrictions (e.g. no yeast in Passover Week)."

Even people who aren't religious may observe a Lenten practice, seeing it as a time of reflection or a way to "reset" their lives, removing something unhelpful from them.


Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving

For people who have been observing Lent for a while, it can become somewhat rote. Rev. Coxe, and many other religious experts, suggest a three-pronged approach to making it more meaningful. Those prongs are prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

Christy Kennedy, a medical sales professional from Cincinnati, Ohio said in 2019 she was giving up Facebook for the Lenten period, not because avoiding the social media platform is such a sacrifice, but so she can devote the time in other ways.


"If I replace the time I look at Facebook with a short or long prayer, I will be in better shape," she said via email. Coxe added that increased attendance at weekday mass can also be helpful for prayer time.

Kate Adams, a high school math teacher in Athens, Georgia, also hoped to renew her family's commitment to prayer during the upcoming Lent. "Instead of giving something up, I am going to make an effort to pray more ... by myself and with the kids," she explained in an email interview. "I feel like I've let the business of life get in the way of that too much lately."

Fasting is observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday by Catholics from age 18 to 59, and is defined as a reduction in the amount of food one normally eats. The Catholic Church lays this out as one meal per day, with two much smaller meals (those two put together shouldn't be larger than the main meal). People within the age range who don't have to fast include those who are sick, pregnant or nursing, manual workers who need the calories for their health and even people who are guests at a meal who can't fast without insulting their host. Some people may elect to fast on additional days throughout the season.

In addition to fasting, the Catholic Church requires people age 14 and older to abstain from eating meat on Fridays during Lent. Fish, shellfish, amphibian and reptile meat are OK, not that you'd necessarily find roasted snake on a dinner menu anywhere!

Almsgiving is the giving away of superfluous goods, particularly to help the needy, according to Rev. Coxe. The 40 Bags in 40 Days movement is a popular decluttering/almsgiving effort. Every day, people tackle a different area of the house and fill a bag with unwanted times, with the intent of simplifying their lives. It intentionally coincides with Lent and at then end of the period, the items are donated, helping others in need. (One variation is collecting 40 items rather than 40 bags.)

This concept of doing a good deed is often incorporated into Lenten observances, so that the observer is not just giving up a vice, but also starting a virtue, whether it's doing volunteer work, contributing to a cause or trying to incorporate something positive in their life, such as being more grateful every day.


Lent FAQ

What is the purpose of Lent?
Lent is a period of penance and abstinence observed by many Christians. Lent is an homage to Jesus' 40 days spent fasting in the desert in preparation for his ministry on Earth.
When you give up something for Lent when does it end?
Lent usually begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Thursday.
How long do you give something up for Lent?
You are supposed to give something up for 40 days during Lent.