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Nowadays people don't think of the common, everyday pretzel as an Easter season food. Nevertheless, for centuries the pretzel qualified as an acceptable food during the forty-day fast that precedes Easter (see also Lent). The pretzel dates back to ancient times. The earliest known image of a pretzel comes from a fifth-century manuscript housed in the Vatican.

Observant Christians in the Roman Empire considered pretzels a suitable Lenten food for two reasons. First, because pretzel dough contains only flour, salt, and water, these bread snacks fulfilled the strict requirements of the Lenten fast. Second, by virtue of their shape, they symbolized the proper activity of an observant Christian during Lent: prayer. In those days many Christians prayed by crossing their arms in front of them and placing the fingertips of each hand on the shoulders of the opposing arms. The bow-shaped pretzel, still common today, represents the crossed arms of a person in prayer. The Romans called these treats bracellae, meaning "little arms" in Latin. Later, the Germans transformed this word into brezel or prezel. English speakers in turn translated the German word as "pretzel." By the Middle Ages pretzels had become a popular Lenten food in many parts of Europe.

In past times Ash Wednesday witnessed the arrival of the pretzel vendor on the streets of Germany, Austria, and Poland. As an act of Lenten charity pretzels were sometimes distributed free to poorer folk. Central Europeans often washed down their pretzels with beer. The Poles enjoyed these crunchy snacks with a dish of beer soup. In Austria children sometimes dangled them from the ends of palm branches on Palm Sunday. Pretzels continued to be widely identified with Lent until the nineteenth century. As western Europeans began to discard the food restrictions once associated with Lent, pretzels lost their association with the season and gradually became a year-round snack food.

Further Reading

Hogan, Julie. Treasury of Easter Celebrations. Nashville, TN: Ideals Publications, 1999. Weiser, Francis X. The Easter Book. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1954.
Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2002
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