This may sound odd coming from a Pagan such as myself. In English speaking countries, Lent is a word used by Roman Catholic Christians for a season of self-deprivation preceding Easter (a holiday that takes its own name from that of the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring and new beginnings). During this time Catholics forfeit the consumption of meat, usually substituting fish of some kind for that portion of the meal.
But the word “Lent” is like Easter in that it predates English Catholicism, and in fact was not used in any specific Christian context until the 11th century. The word, lencten, or Lent, simply means “spring”.
This use of a word for the vernal season to describe a Christian tradition is unique to the English language. In other languages the words used are open references to the fasting (if you can call substituting one animal for another “fasting”) that takes place in the weeks preceding Easter. In Latin – the language of the medieval Church – the season of Lent is called Quadragesima. In Spanish it is la Cuaresma, and in Italian la Quaresima. German Catholics call it der Fastenzeit. In each of these languages the name means “time of fasting”. Only in English is the time of fasting called “spring”.
We can only speculate why this came to be. It certainly was not because the English had no word for fasting. The Old English verb is fæstan, and, logically, English speaking Catholics should call the weeks of fasting something like Fastingtime, which is an English rendering of the German Fastenzeit.
But the English language has never been logical. We may never know why English speaking Catholics chose to call the pre-Easter weeks Spring instead of (like everyone else across Europe) Fastingtime. Perhaps it was local slang in one of the Saxon kingdoms. Perhaps it was the whim of an archbishop or even a king. All we know for certain is that the word lencten – the vernal season – began to transform into a reference to the weeks of Christian fasting approximately forty years before the Norman Conquest. And after the Conquest it was the common speech of the Saxons that prevailed in naming this period of Christian self-deprivation, not the French spoken by their new overlords. Otherwise the Modern English word would be something more similar to the French Carême, which of course means “fasting”, as the season is called in every other language.
Our modern word “spring” is a descriptive we began using in the 16th century. People would speak of the “spring season”, meaning the time of year when new plants spring out of the ground; when blossoms spring forth on boughs. But the season has a more direct name, a proper name, and that name is Lent.
So I celebrate Lent, in a Pagan fashion, and Easter too, with its symbols of rabbits, chicks, eggs and flowers. None of them related to the death and resurrection of a Jewish man, but all of them glorious symbols of springtime. All of them symbols of se lencten.