The salty, twisted treats that we call pretzels have their origin, it is thought, in a seventh-century European monastery—according to lore, either in southern France, northern Italy, or Germany. Allegedly a monk invented them by shaping scraps of leftover bread dough to resemble arms crossed in prayer over the chest. (Think upside-down pretzel.)
During the Middle Ages the church’s fasting requirements for Lent were stricter than they are today, forbidding the intake of all nonaquatic animal by-products, including eggs, lard, milk, and butter. Because pretzels could be made with a simple recipe that avoided these banned ingredients, they soon became associated with the season.
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.
Pretzels are also occasionally spotted in other religious contexts in art, such as in the fifteenth-century Hours of Catherine of Cleves, which contains an illumination of Saint Bartholomew surrounded by the snack—a possible allusion to his being a man of prayer.
So stop by your local baker’s for a pretzel sometime this season, or try making some of your own from scratch. (I do recommend using butter, if your fast allows it!) If you have kids it might be fun to include them in the baking process—or you could make pretzel necklaces with them by stringing the hard variety onto a piece of ribbon or twine. Introduce them to the X-shaped prayer gesture, if they’re not already familiar with it; it’s a gesture still used by many, though it’s universally less common than folded hands, especially for kids.