Pretzels: Lent’s official snack

And you thought pretzels were just a salty, crunchy snack.

At some United Methodist churches, the humble pretzel is a tasty sign of the arrival of Lent.  A few, like Sumner United Methodist in Sumner, Wash., even set aside “Pretzel Sunday,” typically on the first Sunday of Lent.

At Emmanuel UMC in Fleetwood, Pa., “Pretzel Sunday” doubles as a fundraiserthe youth sell warm, freshly baked pretzels for $1 after Sunday morning worship. At Sumner, kids make pretzels while learning the Lenten significance of the snack.

“It comes out of a long history of the church, and some people are fascinated by that,” said the Rev. Pamela Osborne, Sumner’s pastor.

It’s difficult to separate solid historical fact from legend, but “the pretzel indeed has its origins as an official food of Lent,” according to the website The oldest known picture of a pretzel may be a manuscript, now housed in the Vatican, from the fifth century.

Tradition has it that the snack originated between the fifth and seventh centuries when an Italian monk fashioned leftover dough into the now familiar shape, mimicking arms crossed in prayer. (At that time, Christians prayed with their arms crossed over their chests.) The three holes in the most common form of the pretzel may represent the Holy Trinity.

Kids at Sumner United Methodist in Sumner, Wash., bake pretzels for “Pretzel Sunday,” echoing a centuries-old Christian tradition that connects pretzels to the season of Lent.

As the custom of baking pretzels for Lent spread, the first Sunday before Lent became known as Pretzel Sunday. Pretzels were made on that day and eaten during the Lenten season. Since meat, eggs and dairy foods were forbidden during Lent, the simple pretzel, made with flour, salt and water, fit the bill.Pretzels are still an item of Lenten food in some parts of Europe and are sometimes distributed to the poor in cities.

For Ms. Osborne, pretzels serve as a good teaching tool.

“Anything we can do that’s hands-on for children helps them understand,” she said. “Now, when the kids see a pretzel, they will remember, ‘Oh, that means prayer.’”



Mary Jacobs

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