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January 28, 2024

I’m always amazed at the things we take for granted in everyday life that can be traced back to our faith.  Here’s a good story about the common pretzel.


The pretzel's origins date back over 1,400 years.  According to the New York Times, a sixth-century manuscript in the Vatican library shows what may be the first likeness of a pretzel.  However, most sources date the pretzel’s invention a century later.  Around 610 A.D., a Catholic monk with a sense of humor lived in a monastery in Northern Italy.  As a reward to children for learning their prayers, the monk handed out baked pieces of leftover bread twisted together to resemble crossed arms, which was a traditional prayer pose.  He called them pretiola, which is Latin for "little rewards."  The three-holed "pretiola" represented the Trinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The pretzels were a soft, squishy bread like the soft pretzels of today.  They were also called “bracellae” - the Latin word for “little arms” because of the monk’s design.  From this word, the Germans derived the name “bretzel,” and from that, the word “pretzel” was created.


Over time, pretzels came to have religious importance.  In the Middle Ages, monks gave away pretzels to the poor; this led to pretzels being seen as a religious symbol that provided food, good fortune, and prosperity.  As the decades went by, pretzels came to symbolize love.  In 1614, royal couples in Switzerland shared a pretzel during their wedding ceremonies.  Pretzels also became associated with Lent because they did not contain eggs or dairy.  Christians were not permitted to eat eggs, lard, or any dairy products during Lent, so pretzels were good for fasting.  Eventually, pretzels became a tradition on Easter morning to hide them for the children in a pretzel hunt, instead of eggs for an Easter egg hunt like we do today.  And a 12th-century German nun depicted pretzels in artwork as an important part of any feast.


In 1510, the Ottoman Turks attempted to invade Vienna by digging tunnels under the city’s wall to get past the barricade.  Nearby, monks were baking pretzels in the basement of their monastery.  They heard the digging and quickly alerted the city.  Vienna’s army was able to hold off the invaders, and the Austrian emperor gave the monks their own coat of arms as thanks.  That coat of arms included angry lions holding a pretzel and is still used on packaging by some pretzel bakeries today.


While no one knows for sure how pretzels originated, pretzel historians do trace its origins back to the Catholic Church.  So, the next time you have a pretzel, remember they've had a long journey through our rich Catholic history, from learning your prayers to saving a city.


Have a Blessed week and enjoy a pretzel!

Deacon John   

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