Peppermint columns and gumdrop trees decorate the outside of many gingerbread houses created every year at kitchen tables all around the world. Ever since ginger cakes were brought back from the Middle East in the early medieval period, people have been coming up with new ways to enjoy this tasty treat. As the centuries marched on, gingerbread became the de facto material for all sorts of decorations, molded desserts, and gingerbread houses.
In the beginning, gingerbread had a close association with religious ceremonies and special events. For a while, only specially-trained bakers were permitted to work with gingerbread and used religious iconography to mold or shape the biscuits. Gingerbread baking was often controlled by orders of nuns and monks. People usually build today’s gingerbread houses around Christmas, which harkens back to the days when it was the only time of year the sweet treat could be enjoyed, according to the law. As time went on, the strict regulations were lifted and gingerbread became a popular recipe for many people to enjoy.
Gingerbread men came before the gingerbread house. Russian bakers made delicious dolls from this dough, and the practice spread throughout eastern and then western Europe. Gingerbread houses all got their start thanks to the Brothers Grimm fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel” and the gingerbread house in which the mean old witch lived and cooked children for her supper. German bakers built on the popularity of this story and introduced the witch’s house of delicious candies and sweet gingerbread to their customers.
Even though they had a rather frightening origin, the idea of candy-decorated gingerbread houses sank into the mind of bakers and confectioners everywhere. The idea traveled across the ocean to America with German and Dutch settlers and remains a popular holiday tradition in many households.
These days, the humble gingerbread house has grown from a simple sweet treat that is wonderful to display during the holiday season to a large industry complete with world records and yearly competitions. The largest gingerbread house ever built was over 2,300 square feet inside and could easily house a whole family of life-sized gingerbread men and women. In most cases, size does not matter and contests are judged instead on creativity, artistry, and adherence to a particular theme.
Gingerbread houses have been around for hundreds of years, and the sweet and spicy dough that makes up their walls has been around for centuries more. Once valued as worthy of religious ceremonies only due to the expense and scarcity of ginger, cinnamon and other spices included, it has now become a mainstay of the modern holiday season.
Find the perfect recipe and cook up your own wall pieces, or purchase a pre-baked and pre-cut gingerbread house to assemble with royal icing “glue.” Then, decorate with a wide variety of delicious candies and snacks. As you build new traditions with your family and friends, you can remember the days of gingerbread’s first forays into the Western world.