In an era when most people no longer set aside time for God, let alone Church, it is no wonder why certain traditions have lost their meaning. While I have mentioned before that Lent seems to be the most anti-Catholic time of year in particular, it is also odd to notice how many people, especially laps Catholics, still observe some of the Lenten traditions. That being said, it bares explaining the meaning of some of these traditions and practices.
Ash Wednesday - Ashes were a traditional sign of penance or atoning for one's sins, even for the Jewish people. Since Lent is a time of penance, preparing our hearts and souls to celebrate the memorial of Christ's passion and Resurrection, we mark the start of this season with this ancient symbol. When given the ashes by the priest, the traditional saying to the recipient was (and is): "Remember man that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return". It is a sober reminder of the shortness of life and the small importance of all things material, even our bodies which will one day return to the dust of the earth from which they came.
Fish on Fridays - This is where Catholics especially come under criticism, after all "it doesn't say to do that in the Bible." Fasting is no stranger to Judaism or Christianity. It is a very ancient practice for many religions to help a person subdue their earthly appetites. Jesus himself fasted in the desert for 40 days and nights, being tempted by the devil to break the fast and eat. Originally, meat was seen as a luxury, especially in the sea communities of the Mediterranean. To give up meat was to do without such a luxury, and to humble ones-self before the Lord. I don't think it is a coincidence that the no meat policy is on a Friday. Jesus died for us on a Friday, and the small sacrifices we make are to remind ourselves of the ultimate sacrifice He made for us on the cross. Note: It is not mandatory to eat fish, which has now become the luxury food. Simply abstaining from meat and eating only vegetables would suffice.
Giving up something for Lent - Like the meatless Fridays, this too is an act of sacrifice during a season the Church sets aside to remember the ultimate sacrifice Jesus made for us on the cross. It is not a sin not to give up something for Lent. These are pious practices which the universal Church practices together to keep the spirit of sacrifice which Lent is all about... which ushers in the celebration and festivities represented by the Easter holiday.
Purple Vestments - Again, penance. Purple is a sign of mourning, penance, and even waiting. We are mourning the suffering Christ went through on his way to the cross, and his death. We await the feast of the Resurrection. Purple also reminds us of the royalty of Christ as King of Kings. Remember the purple garment Pilot put on Jesus as the people mocked him as "King of the Jews". Sometimes (especially in more traditional or Latin Mass parishes), statues and crucifixes will be veiled in purple. This is a custom referring to how some of Jesus' closest friends abandoned Him (Judas' betrayal, and Peter denying knowing Jesus) during his time of need. Also, it takes away the ornamentation of the Church, setting a more somber mood until the festivity of Easter.
Easter Bunny and Easter Eggs - This isn't about Lent, but I thought I'd throw it in anyway. You're right, they have absolutely nothing to do with the Christian concept of Easter, and were actually pagan traditions for spring. Like anything else though, they were fun traditions, and we assimilated them. Eggs, baby chicks, and the ever reproducing rabbit are symbols of spring and rebirth... concepts not too far from the ideas of the Resurrection and new life of Christ.
So there you go folks. Everything you wanted to know about Lent, and didn't care to ask about.