There are many traditions and stories surrounding the food we know today as a “pretzel” and it is difficult to separate the facts from the legends. The exact origin of the pretzel is unknown and, like the doughy treat, its history takes many twists and turns.
“Little Rewards” and “Little Arms”
One tradition says that as early as 610 AD, monks somewhere in Southern France or Northern Italy offered pretzels to children as a “little reward” for memorizing their Bible verses and saying their prayers. The monks appropriately called it a pretiola, Latin for “little reward”. At some point pretiola became brachiola, which is Italian for “little arms” because the pretzel looks like arms folded in prayer. Eventually if found it way to Germany and became known as a Bretzel or Pretzel.
Food during Lent
Since many pretzel recipes didn’t contain any of the ingredients that were avoided during the pre-Easter Lent season – eggs, milk, butter, lard – the pretzel became a popular Lenten food throughout the Middle Ages. Pretzels are still part of the Easter celebrations in many European countries.
Good Luck, Prosperity, Spiritual wholeness
In 1440 AD a page in the prayer book used by Catharine of Cleves depicted St. Bartholomew surrounded by pretzels. They had come to represent the good luck, prosperity and spiritual wholeness.
Everlasting Life and Rebirth
A decade later in 1450, Germans ate pretzels and hard-boiled eggs for dinner on Good Friday – the day of fasting. The large, puffy pretzel symbolized everlasting life, and the two hard-boiled eggs, nestled in each of the large round curves of the pretzel, represented Easter’s rebirth.
Soon, at Easter, the pretzel was hidden with two hard-boiled eggs for children to find. This is likely the origin of the Easter Egg Hunt we now associate with Easter, with the difference being now we hide the eggs instead of the pretzels. As pretzels and eggs were often hidden in the hay of a barn, baskets filled with hay were later introduced as part of the festivities.
The hard pretzel seems to have been introduced later. While it may have simply been the result of a recipe for the season of Lent, another story says that a baker’s assistant fell asleep while preparing the pretzels and overcooked them. The Master Baker, in the process of throwing out the spoiled pretzels, decided to taste one of the spoiled brown treats. He discovered he liked the nutty flavor and crunchy taste and realized they would keep longer since the moisture had been completely baked out.
Pretzels as an Easter Symbol
Regardless of the true origins, a pretzel turned upside down does look like arms folded in prayer and the three holes could be used as a symbol of the trinity. Pretzels also resemble a heart and thus can be a reminder of the love God showed when Jesus was crucified for the sins of the world. As the pretzel is broken and eaten, we are reminded that Christ in the Passover meal said that his body would be broken. Some pretzel recipes consist only of water and flour, thus proclaiming Lent as a time of fasting and penitence. In many places of Europe, pretzels are served only from Ash Wednesday to Easter, thus keeping the ancient symbolism alive.
Introduce the Children to an Easter basket filled with pretzels and eggs. When you get questioning looks and discussion about the presense of the pretzels, tell them about the history of the treat, the symbolism, and then give each one a pretzel to eat and as a reminder of so many Easter truths.
Instead of an Easter Egg Hunt, hide small snack size packets of pretzels. Alternatively, wrap the pretzels in plastic wrap and then hide them. Kids will be curious as to why pretzels have been hidden instead of eggs. Then introduce them to the Easter traditions and symbolism associated with the tasty treat.
Games and Activities in celebration of Easter.
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