No, the Catholic Church hasn't canceled Valentine's Day

Story highlights

  • Despite its ancient history, myths about Lent abound
  • Starting on Ash Wednesday, more than 1 billion Christians will enter the solemn church season in preparation for Easter

(CNN)No, the Catholic Church has not canceled Valentine's Day, a holiday it started nearly 1,500 years ago to honor St. Valentine, an early Christian martyr.

But several Catholic bishops are urging the faithful to forgo the steak and chocolates and this year -- at least on Wednesday, the 14th. That's because the 14th is also Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent and is one of the holiest days on the calendar for many Western Christians.
Along with Good Friday, Ash Wednesday is supposed to be a somber day of prayer and penance. It's one of two days in the Catholic liturgical year in which fasting and abstinence are required, which means no lavish Valentine's Day dinners.
    "What's a Catholic to do, many wonder," wrote Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York. "The answer is that Ash Wednesday has precedence, and the coincidence of St. Valentine's Day would not lift for us the duty of fasting and self-denial."
    Bishop Thomas Tobin of Rhode Island was more blunt. "Ash Wednesday belongs to God, and it shouldn't be taken away from him," he said.
    Like Tobin, the Archdiocese of Chicago is urging Catholic lovebirds to celebrate Valentine's Day on Tuesday, the 13th, which is also Fat Tuesday, the beginning of Mardi Gras.
    "Join it up with Mardi Gras!" concurred Bishop Richard Malone of Buffalo, New York, in a video posted online.
    Lent became standardized in the Catholic Church around the year 325, but despite it's ancient history, myths about Lenten traditions abound. Here are five of the most common:
    Myth 1: Lent is 40 days
    Counting from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday, there are 46 days.
    Then why do we always refer to the 40 days of Lent? The 40 days of fasting during Lent do not include Sundays.
    Every Sunday Christians commemorate the day of Christ's resurrection, thus, Sunday by its nature is a day of joy and celebration. The Sundays during Lent are not prescribed days of fasting and abstinence, so meat is permitted.
    Myth 2: Lent ends on Easter Sunday
    Lent ends on Holy Thursday. The season of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, February 14 this year, and ends on March 29, Holy Thursday, which commemorates Jesus' last supper with his disciples.
    As stated in the Catholic Church's "General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar," the Easter triduum (Latin for "three days") begins with the evening Mass of the Lord's Supper, and includes Good Friday and Holy Saturday. It closes with evening prayer on Easter Sunday.
    Myth 3: Catholics abstain from meat during all of Lent
    Only on Ash Wednesday and Fridays during Lent are Catholics required to abstain from meat in remembrance of the sacrifice Jesus made on Good Friday.
    According to abstinence laws, meat includes warm-blooded animals and birds. Fish and other cold-blooded animals are not prohibited.
    Local Catholic bishops may determine specific prescripts about what foods are included in abstinence. This can lead to interesting exceptions.
    In the Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit, eating muskrat is allowable on Fridays during Lent. Puffin, beaver and alligator are permissible in some places, too -- provided your local butcher has good connections!
    Myth 4: The Pope decides the date of Easter
    Thanks in part to astronomers who figured out when all full moons would occur, for nearly 1,700 years Easter has fallen on the first Sunday after the Paschal, or Passover, full moon. The earliest possible date of Easter is March 22, and the latest is April 25.
    This year Easter is on April 1. Yep, that's April Fool's day, another quirky calendrical coincidence.
    The way to calculate the date of Easter was determined at a meeting of church bishops and others called the Council of Nicea in 325 near Constantinople in what is now modern day Turkey.
    Myth 5: Jesus went into the desert for 40 days before he was put to death
    Actually, Jesus spent 40 days in the desert before beginning his public ministry, several years before he was crucified.
    The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke -- individual, yet similar, interpretations of Christ's message -- each tell of Jesus spending 40 days in the desert, where he fasted, prayed and was tempted by the devil. After this he went to Galilee where he called his first disciples and began his public ministry.