Many people give something up during Lent. All Catholics are called to give up meat on Ash Wednesday and on all the Fridays of Lent.
Not that long ago, Catholics had to give up all meats and fats, as well as eggs, milk, cheese and butter during Lent. So, on Mardi Gras, people would use up all these food items so they weren’t kept during Lent. That meant there weren’t many food items left over to make treats with during the season.
Treats still possible
However, there were some supplies still around. And these were used to make a treat that became part of Lent and has lasted to this day: the pretzel.
Pretzels only need a little flour, water, yeast and salt. Today some pretzels — especially those sold by street vendors or at sporting events — are made with butter, sugar and milk products. However, pretzels can also be made without any of those ingredients. This is what made them the perfect Lenten treat.
Many traditions say pretzels trace their invention to a seventh century monastery, somewhere in Europe. This is most often claimed of Germany, but various countries vie for the title of “innovator.” The story says a monk working in a kitchen took some leftover bread dough, rolled it into a rope and then folded it into a position reminiscent of arms folded in prayer. (Other traditions say the pretzel got crispy because the monk left the small. twisted breads in the oven too long. Fortunately for him, that became popular.)
It’s in the arms
These twists in the rope-like dough gave these baked goods the name “pretzels” (brezel in German). “Pretzel” derives from the Germanic word for “arms” (brezitella), which ultimately came to us from the Greek word for arm — brakhion. (That’s also where we get the name for the main artery in the arm — the brachial artery.)
While the pretzel shape started out focused only on braiding, it wasn’t long before someone noticed that the pretzel-twist formed three distinct sections. Those three equal-sized sections quickly reminded people of the Holy Trinity. So not only did the pretzel remind people about prayer, it also became a prayer aide — a physical, mini-prayer to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Because pretzels resembled arms crossed over the chest in an old-fashioned prayer position, they were also used as rewards for children when they learned to recite their prayers correctly.
Even at the Last Supper?
This even worked its way into medieval art. Blogger Victoria Emily Jones, who regularly writes for artandtheology.org, has noted several instances of prayer books and Last Supper illustrations that include the pretzel as an image. An example is the Last Supper by German artist Martin Schaffner (1478-1548) that shows a pretzel on the table beside Judas.
“The pretzel’s Lenten link, not to mention its popularity as a year-round snack both inside and outside monastic communities, led artists to sometimes paint pretzels into Last Supper images,” Jones noted.
Catholicculture.org notes that one of the oldest images of a pretzel (dating to the fifth century) can be found in the Vatican Library.
Tying the knot?
Pretzels became a common Lenten food, used from Ash Wednesday to Easter in many European and Eastern European cultures — long before pretzels became a common snack food.
Besides Lent, pretzels also have connections to weddings. Some Swiss traditions say the phrase “tying the knot” came from the use of pretzels at royal weddings in the 17th century. (However, “tying the knot” more likely goes back to Roman traditions and had nothing to do with baked goods.)
While Germany often claims to be the birthplace of pretzels, American pretzels are generally made right here in the United States. That baking industry began with the German immigrants who arrived in the Pennsylvania region in the early 18th century and brought the pretzel baking tradition with them.
In 1861, Julius Sturgis founded the first commercial pretzel bakery in the town of Lititz in Lancaster County, Pa. Today, nearly 80 percent of U.S. pretzels are made in Pennsylvania.
So as Lent winds down and you feel the urge for a snack, don’t reach for the doughnut. Try a pretzel and let its twists remind you of prayers winding their way up to heaven.
Sources: artandtheology.org; Etymology Online; bustedhalo.com; catholicculture.org; history.com; and FoodReference.com