The pretzel is a traditional Lenten bread that dates back to the early 4th century. Christians in the Roman Empire maintained a strict fast during Lent that excluded from their diet milk, butter, cheese, eggs, cream, and meat. In the late 6th century, Pope Gregory confirmed this when he wrote to Augustine of Canterbury regarding dietary rules in Lent: “We abstain from flesh, meat, and from all things that come from flesh, as milk, cheese and eggs.” In order to preserve strength throughout the day, people would eat one meal in the evening or in the middle of the afternoon with smaller snacks throughout the day. The pretzel fulfilled the need for a simple food that met abstinence and fasting concerns.
By making breads of water, four, and salt, early Christians were reminded of the penitential nature of Lent and fasting. By shaping the bread in the form of crossed arms, they were also reminded of prayer. The Latin word for “little arms” is bracellae. Eventually invading German tribes corrupted the Latin to “brezel” or “prezel.”
From medieval times, the people of Germany, Austria, and Poland introduced pretzels annually on Ash Wednesday. In addition to giving out pretzels to the poor during Lent, other traditions include hanging pretzels from palm branches on Palm Sunday. Despite the fact that pretzels are now readily available throughout the year, there are still places in Europe that only serve pretzels from Ash Wednesday to Easter in keeping with the former symbolism.
A fifth century manuscript contains the earliest picture and description of the pretzel.