During Lent in the early Church, many abstained from all forms of meat and animal products, while others made exceptions for food like fish. Pope St. Gregory sent the following to St. Augustine of Canterbury, "We abstain from flesh, meat, and from all things that come from flesh, as milk, cheese and eggs." Second, the general rule was for a person to have only one meal a day, around three o’clock in the afternoon, and smaller snacks during the rest of the day.
According to Snyder’s of Hanover, (a modern day pretzel maker), a monk in the early 600s in Italy was preparing a special Lenten bread of water, flour and salt. In order to remind his brother monks that Lent was a time of prayer, he rolled the bread dough in strips and then shaped each strip in the form of crossed arms. The bread was then baked as a soft bread, just like the big soft pretzels one can find today.
There are two schools of thought concerning the name. 1)Because these breads were shaped into the form of crossed arms, they were called bracellae, the Latin word for "little arms." From this word, the Germans derived the word bretzel which has since mutated to the familiar word pretzel. 2) Another possibility is that the monk gave these breads to children as a reward when they could recite their prayers. The Latin word pretiola means "little reward," from which pretzel could also be reasonably derived.
This simple Lenten food became very popular and was enjoyed by all classes of people. As they were easy to prepare and store, it became a common food to give to the poor and hungry.
Another legend tells that monks baking pretzels in the basement of a monastery in Vienna, during the siege by the Ottoman Turks , could hear the sounds of the Turks digging secretly under the walls of the city. The monks alerted the guard and Vienna was saved!
Originally all pretzels were soft. The story is told of a young apprentice baker dozing off while tending to the oven where the pretzels were baking. After almost allowing the oven fires to die out, he awoke, stoked the oven and over-baked the pretzels. At first the master baker was upset, but soon discovered that the hard pretzels were also delicious. These hard pretzels were less perishable than the soft, and thereby easy to have available to give to the poor and hungry.
The Pretzel PrayerWe beg you, O Lord, to bless these breads which are to remind us that Lent is a sacred season of penance and prayer. For this very reason, the early Christian started the custom of making these breads in the form of arms crossed in prayer. Thus they kept the holy purpose of Lent alive in their hearts from day to day, and increased in their souls the love of Christ, even unto death, if necessary.
Grant us, we pray, that we too, may be reminded by the daily sight of these pretzels to observe the holy season of Lent with true devotion and great spiritual fruit. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.