I grew up in the Bible Belt. That means that Ash Wednesday was decidedly not a big deal. In fact, most people in Oklahoma City probably didn't even know what it was. I don't recall ever seeing anyone walk around with ashes on their head until I went to Catholic boarding school in high school. It didn't help that we never went to Ash Wednesday services because neither of my parents could drive. For the most part I was ignorant of Lent, although I knew you were supposed to think about giving up candy or t.v.. It WAS post-Vatican II, though, so what we were taught is to be extra nice during Lent, rather than give up stuff.
So, I am always quite startled when I go to an Ash Wednesday Mass up here in Catholic land and the Church is crammed full. I first experienced this in Minneapolis at St. Olaf's downtown. The noon Ash Wednesday Mass (and Good Friday services) were STANDING ROOM ONLY. Today we went to an ordinary parish in an ordinary part of Milwaukee county. Once again, a FULL Church.
There are other things that amaze me about the Catholic north. For instance, A Jesuit friend of mine reports that the local newspaper, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, had a pull-out section from the Archdiocese on Lent. I can't imagine the Daily Oklahoman doing that! Also, there is this peculiar thing called "release time." In the north, the public schools actually let the students start late or leave early on Wednesday to go to religious education classes. The Baptists in Oklahoma would take that one to the Supreme Court on violation of Church and State grounds.
The Church is much less invisible here in what the former blogger "Lucy" called the City of Steeples. I hear that she is even more invisible in the secular ecotopia of the Northwest than in the Baptist South. I had a friend from Seattle who was amazed when she saw a building near the Marquette campus with the words "Catholic Knights" in huge, red neon letters on top. "That wouldn't happen in Seattle," she said.