An easy and at the same time significant Lenten food custom for our time might be to serve a small pretzel to every member of the family with his main meal in Lent. It sounds surprising, but the pretzel has a deep spiritual meaning for Lent. In fact, it was the ancient Christian Lenten bread as far back as the fifth century. In the old Roman Empire, the faithful kept a very strict fast all through Lent: no milk, no butter, no cheese, no eggs, no cream and of course, no meat. So they made small breads of water, flour and salt. To remind themselves that Lent was a time of prayer, they shaped these breads in the form of arms crossed in prayer (in those days they crossed their arms over the breast while praying). Therefore they called the breads "little arms" (bracellae). From this Latin word the Germans later coined the term "pretzel."
Thus the pretzel is the most appropriate food symbol in Lent. It still shows the form of arms crossed in prayer, reminding us that Lent is a time of prayer. It consists only of water and flour, thus proclaiming Lent as a time of fasting. Besides, it is a custom come down to us from the early Christians, who had invented it as bearer of such a great spiritual message. (The earliest picture and description of a pretzel-from the fifth century-may be found in the manuscript -- codex No. 3867, Vatican Library.)
That many people eat pretzels today all through the year, that they take them together with beer in taverns and restaurants, is only an accidental habit. The true purpose and meaning has been forgotten. However, the pretzel still is an image of arms crossed in prayer; it still is the symbol of prayerful penance in Lent. In many places of Europe pretzels are served only from Ash Wednesday to Easter, thus keeping the ancient symbolism alive.
There seems to be no reason why our Catholic families should not return to this beautiful custom of our ancient Roman fellow-Christians, especially since we still have these breads around everywhere. The children will be delighted and greatly impressed when they hear the true story of the pretzel. And such a pretzel at their dinner plate every day during Lent will certainly proclaim its spiritual message as clearly and deeply to them as it did to many a Christian in ancient Rome.
Excerpted from Religious Customs in the Family , available from TAN Books (1-800-437-5876).