• History
  • Religion

From Pinatas to Eating Muskrat: Here Are the Surprising Origins of 5 Lenten Traditions

4 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

On Ash Wednesday—Feb. 22 this year— it is traditional for Roman Catholics to go to church, where a priest will put ashes made from burnt palms on their foreheads in the shape of a cross. The ritual marks the start of Lent. For 40 days, Roman Catholics are supposed to give up something that means a lot to them, make an extra effort to help those less fortunate than themselves, and abstain from meat on Fridays. (Some Eastern Orthodox Christians eat vegetarian or vegan on certain days.)

Lent culminates in Easter, which is April 9 this year. Traditions like baskets of dyed eggs and candy have become popular. But Easter is also traditionally celebrated by gathering with family for a big meal, often lamb.

Throughout history, Christians have gotten creative about how they ate and how they passed the time during this period of sacrifice, which commemorates the 40 days that Jesus fasted in the desert while being tempted by Satan. Some rituals that started with Lent became so popular on their own that many people don’t realize their connection to the Christian observance and they are no longer associated with Lent.

Here, we’ve rounded up the most surprising Lenten traditions, past and present.

Pinatas: Beating the Seven Deadly Sins with a stick

The tradition of whacking a papier-mâché creation filled with candy originally started in Italy as a Lenten tradition and then was picked up by the Spanish and brought to Mexico, where it became associated with parties. According to Baylor professor Michael Foley, author of Dining with the Saints, “The original pinata was brightly decorated and had seven cones, representing the Seven Deadly Sins, and if you could ‘defeat’ the Seven Deadly Sins, then you got heavenly rewards in the form of that candy.”

Read more: The origins and meanings of the major ‘Holy Week’ rituals

Pretzels: Arms folded in prayer

In the early Middle Ages, Lenten fasting required giving up meat and dairy, so pretzels became popular. Foley says parents used to give them to children as treats for good behavior. The twisty shape is meant to represent “arms folded in prayer,” says Foley’s Dining with the Saints co-author Fr. Leo Patalinghug. (Patalinghug is known as “the cooking priest” for beating celebrity chef Bobby Flay in a cookoff in 2012.)

Eels: Helping to pay the rent

During the Middle Ages, some monasteries that owned properties collected rent in eels during the Lenten season when they were abstaining from meat, as historian John Wyatt Greenlee previously told TIME. Medieval monks are thought to have eaten the eels to suppress sexual thoughts while they were fasting.

Hot cross buns: Good for eating, wearing, and what ails you

These buns with the shape of the cross on top have become a traditional dessert during the Lenten season. At first, the cross on top was just how monks would score the bread so it doesn’t bake unevenly, according to Patalinghug. Medieval monks would hand out the mini loaves to the poor. The English made them into a fruit cake and drew the cross on top with icing. Foley says superstitious people would wear hot cross buns around their necks as amulets, and if they got sick, they would nibble on them because they thought that would help them get better.

Read more: This is where the word ‘Easter’ comes from

Muskrat: Michigan’s Lenten treat

Eating muskrat during Lent is a tradition that is alive and well in Michigan. It is said to date back to the French Catholics, who settled south of Detroit in the 18th century. Usually Catholics have to abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent, but, as the story goes, because of the limited food options in the impoverished area throughout the winter, one pastor asked church officials to make an exception for muskrats—a rabbit-sized water-dwelling rodent, according to Detroit-area history teacher ​​Joe Boggs.

Lansing Bishop Kenneth Povish once said, “anyone who could eat muskrat was doing penance worthy of the greatest of the saints.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com