Q. Do pretzels have their origin in medieval Lenten practices?
A. Yes, according to tradition, that’s correct. In earlier times, Lenten abstinence laws were much stricter than they are now. Throughout the forty days — not just on Fridays (but not on Sundays) — Catholics abstained from eating not just meat, but also eggs and dairy products. Only one meal was taken a day, usually toward evening, though eventually the meal was moved up to 3:00 p.m. or even noon.
After the meal became established at the earlier time of day, a collation (small snack) came to be allowed in the evening. People needed some kind of light food that fit the abstinence rules, and pretzels filled the bill.
Traditions vary about the exact origins of the snack. One popular story says that a young monk in the early seventh century in Italy was preparing a special Lenten bread of water, flour and salt. (No eggs, milk, or lard could be used as ingredients). To remind the other monks that Lent was a time of prayer, he rolled the dough in strips and twisted each strip in the distinctive pretzel shape we know today. This design reflected what was then a popular prayer posture of crossing the arms upon the chest.
The dough was baked to become a soft bread like the large soft pretzels we sometimes enjoy today. In time, the smaller, hard-baked variety was developed as well (not to mention pretzel sticks).
And the origin of the name? One tradition says it comes from the Latin word bracellae, meaning “little arms” (at prayer). From this word, the Germans derived the word bretzel, which came into English as pretzel. Another story insists that the term comes from the Latin pretiola, which means “little reward,” because the legendary originator of the treat gave the breads to children as rewards for reciting their prayers.
Whatever their precise origin may be, it’s a great idea to enjoy some pretzels during the Lenten season — and let them remind us to pray!