At camp, as part of our evening worship service, we ate pretzels! Pretzels are associated with Lent and we used them to engage in a Lenten exercise, of eating slowly and deliberately, thinking about the taste and the texture as we ate, because the season of Lent is not just a time of fasting and giving things up, but it is also an invitation to slow down and go more deeply into our thoughts, feelings, relationship – with God and others.
There are other exercises which help us – to go more deeply into our thoughts and feelings and relationships – during Lent. Perhaps we could have a ‘slow conversation’ with a friend – a time when you talk slowly and thoughtfully to each other; listen very intentionally and enjoy silences. Perhaps you breathe slowly as you reflect or pray. Perhaps you could deliberately move slowly (I don’t suggest trying this in the car!) when you find yourself in a rush. Perhaps Lent is a time to think – slowly and carefully.
I got curious this week, however, about why pretzels are a Lenten symbol. It has a little to do with pretzels not containing dairy and eggs – foods traditionally avoided during Lent – and, in the material I read before camp, I was told that ‘pretzel’ means ‘little arms’, and that pretzels were created by monks to resemble arms folded in prayer.
It turns out, however, that the real story is more complicated. That explanation comes from a legend that in 610 AD an Italian monk invented pretzel as a reward to children who learnt their prayers and called them ‘pretiola‘ (or ‘little rewards’) But almost all the pretzel origin stories – whether they came from French monasteries or traditional Greek communion ‘ring bread’ – associate them with Christian tradition.
The meaning ‘little arms’ isn’t Italian, but it might come from the German name ‘brezel’ from the Latin ‘bracellus’ (a medieval term for bracelet) or ‘bracchiola’ which means ‘little arms’.
And the shape of the pretzel has another religious meaning as well. The three holes within the pretzel represent the three persons of the Trinity; Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
In fact, pretzels have been associated with both Lent and Easter. So much so that they were once hidden on Easter morning just as eggs are hidden today.
All of this has made me think a lot more about pretzels, but also encouraged me to find my own practices to reflect on Lent and on my relationship with God during this season.