Lent is a period of 40 days and nights, the example of which comes from Christ's time he fasted in the desert up to His temptation by satan and embarkation of his ministry as well as the time Moses spent fasting on Mount Sinai when he received the first copies of the tablets with the Ten Commandments. This period begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Thursday (the day before Christ's crucifixion). The dates for these events are determined by a resolution made at the Council of Nicaea of 325 AD, where Resurrection Sunday falls on the Sunday after the Paschal Full Moon (the first full moon on or after the vernal (spring) equinox). Then Ash Wednesday is set 40 days prior to Holy Thursday, which is, of course, three days prior to Resurrection Sunday.
Ash Wednesday is preceded by the festival of Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday. The idea behind Mardi Gras is to allow yourself one more day of basically doing whatever you want, within reason, before embarking on the solemn observance of Lent. We will explore a little bit more about this philosophy later in this post.
First let us take a look at Ash Wednesday. The ash used for this day comes from the palm branches that were burned after being used during the previous years Palm Sunday, when Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a colt, to great acclaim with people lining the streets waving the palms branches and laying them, and their cloaks, on the road in front of Him.
On Ash Wednesday it is traditional to place this ash on your forehead to symbolize your remorse and repentance of your sins. At this point we should explore the wisdom of this practice. Of course if you are going to observe Lent it is a good idea to reflect on what you are repenting of but if we use the example of Jesus criticizing the Pharisees for making their prayers a public spectacle rather than praying in private, we should consider not participating in any overt or outward sign that we are beginning this personal journey.
And in His teaching He said, "Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows' houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation."
I would suggest if you are going to participate in Ash Wednesday do not put the ash on your forehead but either forgo that tradition or put it somewhere that is less visible. After all, as Christians, we are supposed to be known by our fruit, not a superficial tradition.
During Lent, as a whole, a Christian is required to fast, again based on the example given by Jesus and Moses, and reflect on any specific sin that God has put on your heart to repent of and ask for forgiveness. Traditionally the type of fasting that is observed is to eat a sensible dinner while the other two meals during the day (breakfast and lunch) are not supposed to, in combination, exceed the amount of the evening meal. Also, there are some who do not eat red meat or other things for this 40 day period. Some people also abstain from drinking alcohol, or sex. Though, many make an exception to the alcohol rule in the observance of St. Patrick's Day (March 17th). There are also those that will, in addition to the above, give something up for this time period.
All of this is well and good if you are using this time to make a more concerted effort to focus on your spiritual growth, however, if this time is only being observed to "cover yourself till next year" then why bother? Which brings us back to Mardi Gras.
Mardi Gras, as mentioned, is basically the French festival - though it is observed in many other parts of the world, not just France, such as New Orleans - where you pretty much have carte blanche to do anything you want, within reason, before doing your annual repentance and request for forgiveness. However, if this is the attitude there is no point in observing Lent as it is then obvious you are not truly repentant of whatever sin you are focusing on. Also, since all of this is tied to Christianity there is no real point for the secular world to even consider it. Of course Mardi Gras is a large event in many cities around the world, and to a certain extent, part of their economies.
But really this comes down to motivation. If the motivation is to build on your continuing spiritual growth then, by all means, use this time to do so. Though if the attitude is that this is a time to make an "annual deposit" I suggest a serious reconsideration as your heart may not be in the right place.