The Not So Holly Jolly History of Gingerbread
The art of crafting houses and human likenesses from gingerbread has not always been the overtly yuletide activity that it is today.
Between gift wrapping and preparing for yet another holiday feast, it can be hard to find time for extracurricular seasonal activities, especially when that activity involves gluing gumdrop buttons onto lightly spiced, people-shaped cookies. Still, making gingerbread men can be a relaxing way to both cultivate the yuletide spirit and create impressive, entirely edible decorations. For the more ambitious holiday crafters, gingerbread houses, whether homemade or from a kit, can provide even more Christmas creativity. But while these culinary crafts are now firmly associated with December, it’s worth remembering that that hasn’t always been the case. Gingerbread, in one form or another, has been around since the Ancient Greeks, and when the first gingerbread men were created, Santa was hardly on the decorators’ minds.
According to culinary historian Tori Avey, the earliest gingerbread recipes can be traced back to 2400 B.C. The hardened cookies we think of today, however, didn’t come about until the Middle Ages in Europe, when gingerbread cookies became a staple of local fairs. Gingerbread cookies tended to change shape depending on the season; birds were common in the fall, for example, as were flowers in the spring. But the cookies were also often shaped like animals or royalty, and it wasn’t uncommon for nobility to dress their cookies up with gold leaf in addition to icing. Queen Elizabeth I is usually cited as the first to make what we might recognize as a gingerbread man. Legend has it that when foreign dignitaries came to visit her, she had some cookies decorated to resemble her guests. Rather than being associated with Christmas, gingerbread cookies were largely synonymous with wealth and prosperity; the cookie’s decoration was more highlighted than the season in which it was served.
Gingerbread houses, which came about in the 1600s, did gain a more immediate association with Christmastime. The German people who pioneered the craft more intuitively connected the gilded, elaborately iced edible structures to Christmas celebrations. The culinary craft project didn’t become truly popular, however, until the Brothers Grimm released their popular version of the Hansel and Gretel folktale two centuries later. The story, in which two children are almost lured to their deaths by a witch living in a gingerbread house, captured people’s imagination and spread the practice across Europe. Some even believe the gingerbread house originated with the Grimm Brothers’ story; while that’s untrue, it’s possible that the source of the famous fable influenced the tradition. A severe famine during the 1300s, for example, likely led to the Hansel and Gretel tale; during that catastrophe, parents turned their children out because they were unable to feed them.
These days, gingerbread houses have little to do with childhood peril—unless the danger is too much sugar. Gone, too, are the days when gingerbread men are dressed up like kings and queens. But regardless of their origins, the gingerbread baking customs we associate with Christmas today are perfectly capable of filling you with holiday cheer (especially if you have a special soft spot for royal icing).