Sources differ as to the time and place of the pretzel's origin. Many sources say it originated in southern Germany (where it remains very popular and is known as Brezel); others say it comes from the French region of Alsace on the border between France and Germany. Some say it originated in Medieval times, others that it dates back to Ancient Rome or even Celtic times.
There are also several stories about the origin of the pretzel shape. One legend holds that a baker accused of larceny was offered the opportunity to cancel his sentence if he could make a bread through which the sun could be seen thrice; the ingenious baker twisted his dough into a pretzel before baking. Another common story says that the shape represents the position of arms of a monk in prayer. Another story says that the three holes represent the Christian Holy Trinity. A sign with three rings was an old symbol to mark a bakery in Germany, but sources differ as to if the signs were made to imitate the pretzel or the pretel was made to imitate the signs. However, stories told of the pretzel are likely apochryphal, and the actual origin of the pretzel seems to be a mystery.
Pretzels are traditionally about the size of a standard cookie. However, some companies sell mini-pretzels about a fourth that size. In addition, a so-called super pretzel, or a breadstick twisted into a pretzel shape, has appeared on the market. The annual US pretzel industry is worth over $180 million.
The main varieties of pretzel are soft and hard. The soft is more traditional, and is best eaten fresh baked. The hard pretzel is more common in the United States, as it can be packaged and stored.
According to some sources, the bagel originated as a variation on the pretzel.