Pretzels for Lent

A Catholic Culture Moment 

Incorporating pretzels into our Lenten program is a wonderful and appropriate devotion. The pretzel being symbolic of prayer and penance is a small but powerful instrument in bringing families to God.  Making pretzels with children is a great way to explain that Lent is a period of fasting, self-denial and prayer in imitation of our Lord's fasting for forty days and forty nights in preparation for the feast of Easter.  Our fasting and penance comprises forty days, not including Sundays, from Ash Wednesday to the end of Holy Saturday. The term "penance" should be made clear to children. It means a "change of heart," a victory over sin and a striving for holiness. The sacrifices of fasting and self-denial are only means and signs of this spiritual penance.

A traditional means of reminding the family that it is the holy season of Lent is the Lenten foods which are served only this time of the year. Thus parents and children realize, even at their meals, that prayer and penance should be practiced during these days.

The pretzel has a deep spiritual meaning for Lent. In fact, it was the ancient Christian Lenten bread as far back as the fourth century. In the old Roman Empire, the faithful kept a very strict fast all through Lent: no milk, no butter, no cheese, no eggs, no cream and no meat.

They made small breads of water, flour and salt, to remind themselves that Lent was a time of prayer. They shaped these breads in the form of crossed arms because in those days they crossed their arms over their chest while praying. Therefore, they called the breads "little arms" (bracellae).  From this Latin word, the Germanic people later coined the term "pretzel."        

So, the pretzel is the most appropriate food symbol in Lent. It still shows the form of arms crossed in prayer as an expression that Lent is a time of prayer, and consists only of water, flour, and sometimes yeast, as a remembrance that Lent is a time of fasting.

The fact that many people today eat pretzels all through the year in taverns and restaurants, and paired with peanuts and the like is only an accidental habit. In many places of Europe, pretzels are served only from Ash Wednesday to Easter, helping to keep the ancient symbolism alive.

There seems to be no reason why our Christian families should not return to this beautiful custom of our ancient Roman Christian ancestors, especially since we still have these breads everywhere. The children will be delighted and greatly impressed when they hear the true story of the pretzel.

Suggested reading:
The Year of the Lord in the Christian Home                              by Rev. Francis X. Weiser, S.J. (Collegeville, Minnesota,       The Liturgical Press, ©1964)   
- Tiffany J Gallozzi


Soft Pretzel Recipe ~ What you need:

  • 1 package yeast
  • 1 1/2 cups warm water
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 4 cups flour
  • 1 egg
  • extra salt for the tops - large salt works best!

Mix your yeast, water, sugar, and salt in a large bowl. Stir in the flour, and knead until the dough is smooth. Shape into the form of arms crossed in prayer and place it on a baking sheet. Brush the dough with a beaten egg to give it a shiny finish (you can use oil if you prefer). Sprinkle the top with salt, and bake in an oven
preheated to 425 degrees for 15 minutes.