Though it is a ubiquitous, even mundane snack today, the humble pretzel actually has a spiritual origin: It was invented by Catholic monks at the beginning of the Middle Ages and, according to legend, was imbued with religious symbolism. Most historians trace the origin of the pretzel to around 610 CE in a monastery in either Italy or France, and some scholars believe that the iconic twisted shape was meant to resemble children with their arms crossed in prayer. In fact, according to some sources, the modern name “pretzel” is derived from the old German word “brezel,” which comes from the Latin “bracchiātus,” which roughly translates to “little folded arms.”
The pretzel’s connections to the Catholic Church persisted throughout the Middle Ages. Images of pretzels began appearing in religious manuscripts of the time, and the food was frequently used in Easter games and hung on Christmas trees in the 16th century. While most people no longer associate pretzels with the divine (unless they’re really, really good), these salty snacks have never fully left their religious origins behind: They’re still commonly eaten by Catholics during Lent. Since they were baked without milk, pretzels were also a perfect food for the fasting tradition, when most Christians abstain from consuming dairy products.