Pretzels and Lent: A Not-So-Twisted Combination

Image credit: By Kristina Balić (2016),, CC0/PD

A favorite snack makes a springboard for fun lessons about faith.

By Lisa Lawmaster Hess

In our parish, I sometimes see children too young to receive the Eucharist accompanying their parents in line, arms crossed dutifully over their chests. This helps the priest to avoid that awkward moment of guessing whether or not these children are old enough to receive Communion.

But did you know that same position also inspired a snack food?

The most popular story on the origin of the pretzel attributes its creation to an Italian monk who used them to motivate his students. Using a simple dough of flour and water, he created a snack that mimicked the prayerful position of arms crossed over the chest. Other stories make deeper connections: the three holes of the pretzel representing the holy trinity, for example, and, when paired with hard-boiled eggs nestled into the holes, a Lenten repast that’s a reminder of the rebirth we celebrate at Easter. With a recipe requiring only flour, water and salt, the pretzel’s simplicity reflected the abstinence of Lent.

Each year in the United States, we purchase more than $550 million worth of pretzels and, individually, we consume up to two pounds of them, with folks in Philadelphia eating about six times as many per person. This is a far cry from the pretzel’s simple origin as a snack small enough to be eaten on days when fasting permits only one small meal.

Since food is often a learning tool (I give you Skittles math, gingerbread houses, marshmallow-and-toothpick structures, and, my favorite, though it’s not actual food, kindergarteners sitting criss-cross applesauce), why not include the humble pretzel? Its integration can be as simple as providing it as a treat for your students while you share its origin story or, if you wish, you can get more creative.

Here are a few ideas.

Give it its own song.

As I was typing this, Cookie Monster’s signature song, from Sesame Street (“C is for Cookie”) started running through my head. With young children, we can play and sing Cookie Monster’s song, with a slight change to the words:

P is for pretzel, a snack that’s made for Lent,
P is for pretzel, a snack that’s made for Lent,
P is for pretzel, a snack that’s made for Lent,
It’s twisted so it looks like praying arms.

This could be sufficient (and the earworm probably will be) but if you play the video, there’s a center section where Cookie Monster riffs on other things that start with C. This could be taken at face value (“What else starts with P?”) or turned into an opportunity for children to share something they like about pretzels or other connections they can make between pretzels and Lent. Older students can research the origins themselves and put new lyrics to a song of their choosing.

Create a pretzel acrostic, or have students create their own.

For young children, this activity could consist of connecting faith concepts to the letters (p could stand for priest, prayer, paschal or palm). Older students can create acrostics of their own and be asked to explain the connections they’ve made to each letter. Or, you can create one yourself, designed to stimulate a discussion that targets concepts you want to examine with your students. The acrostic can be simple, such as:

Prayer (Jesus’s 40 days in the desert, our call to approach Lent prayerfully)

Restraint (abstinence)

Engage (with those less fortunate by almsgiving)

Time (taking time for God, prayer, and those we love)

Zeal (evangelization, faith)

Emerge (Jesus’s emergence from the tomb, the church’s emergence from the darkness of Good Friday to the light of Easter Sunday)

Love (the love and sacrifice of our Savior)

And we can munch on pretzels as we discuss our ideas.

Give it its own week.

Seven letters in “pretzel,” seven days in a week. Take the acrostic above one step further by making each letter the theme of the day in your classroom. This can be done either for seven consecutive days at school or modeled through a single five-day school week, culminating in students bringing the lesson home and putting their own “twist” on it over the weekend. Once back at school, they can explain how they shared “E” and “L” with their families at a Monday morning meeting, or in a journal or writing assignment.

These are just a few ideas; I have no doubt you can think of lots of saltier ones (along with plenty of bad puns). You can also check out where you’ll find a pretzel recipe and a pretzel prayer along with the history of the pretzel.

Whatever you do, the visual of the familiar pretzel, readily available year-round, is likely to become permanently twisted together (Sorry. I couldn’t resist) with Lenten concepts, creating lasting connections in your students’ minds. In addition, everyone will be well-prepared to celebrate National Pretzel Day, which falls on April 26 this year.

Let’s just hope no one in your class gave up pretzels for Lent.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering (or need to know), they do make gluten-free pretzels.

Lisa Lawmaster Hess is an adjunct professor of psychology at York College of Pennsylvania and a former elementary-school counselor. Her latest book is Know Thyself: The Imperfectionist’s Guide to Sorting Your Stuff.

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