Category: Gingerbread House History

The Sweet History of Gingerbread Houses

gingerbread house historyPeppermint 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.

Gingerbread House History

a thousand old traditionDecorating a gingerbread house is a popular family tradition in America. Gingerbread houses are loved by both parents and kids. What you probably didn’t know is that this is a tradition that is more than 1000 years old!

So what’s gingerbread? According to The New Food Lover’s Companion, “Gingerbread generally refers to one of two desserts. It can be a dense, ginger-spiced cookie flavored with molasses or honey and cut into fanciful shapes (such as the popular gingerbread man). Or, particularly in the United States, it can describe a dark, moist cake flavored with molasses, ginger and other spices.”

Fascinating! Now, although no one is sure about the exact origin of the gingerbread house, here’s what we do know. The ginger plant (the root is the part that is used) originated in China and was known widely throughout Asia. Gingerbread was probably introduced to Europe by an Armenian monk in the 10th Century. Apparently, he taught the art of baking gingerbread to Christian priests in France.
a thousand old tradition
The familiar Gingerbread Man has its origins in England. The English claim to be the first to bake and sell gingerbread, and they introduced the idea of the Gingerbread Man. In fact, gingerbread was a much loved treat in festivals and fairs in medieval Europe. It was shaped and decorated to look like many attractive things – birds, animals, flowers and armor. Gingerbread fairs were universally popular in those days.

Indeed, the young ladies in those days offered their favorite knights a piece of gingerbread to wish them luck before competitions. There was also a tradition of young women secretly eating a “gingerbread husband” in hopes of finding that special someone.

It is interesting that the word “gingerbread” has come to mean different things over the centuries. Any kind of preserved ginger was called gingerbread in medieval England. The French used the term gingebras for gingerbread, which was derived from the Latin word, zinzebar. It was only in the 15th Century that gingerbread was associated with baked, ginger-flavored cakes.

Gingerbread has also long been considered to be a medicine used to cure stomach cramps. As one 16th Century writer by the name of John Baret wrote, “[Gingerbread is] A Kinde of cake or paste made to comfort the stomacke.”

In fact, gingerbread was so popular that The Bard of Avon, William Shakespeare, wrote about it in a play – “An I had but one penny in the world, thou shouldst have it to buy ginger-bread.”
The Germans claim that they invented the concept of making gingerbread houses. There is a lot of truth to this. Gingerbread cookies are popularly called Lebkuchen in Germany, and they have been a part of German culture since the 15th Century.

In Germany, it is common to see gingerbread sold at street fairs, shaped as hearts frosted with cute messages such as “I Love You!”, “All I Need Is You!” and “You Are Awesome” in German. It’s likely that German bakers’ gingerbread houses were inspired by the fairy tale Hansel and Gretel by Brothers Grimm, in which the witch lives in a cottage made of gingerbread, decorated with sweets.

In the past, gingerbread was traditionally prepared in monasteries, churches and other religious institutions in Europe. Swedish nuns, for instance, used to bake and sell gingerbread to raise money for charity. Gingerbread was also available for sale in pharmacies and farmers’ markets.
gingerbread house
But it was when gingerbread made its way to England that it became really popular. The English started the tradition of painting gingerbread and displaying it in shop windows. It was in England that decorating the gingerbread house became a holiday tradition for the whole family.

In the United States, we have been baking gingerbread for more than 200 years. Indeed, George Washington’s mother wrote a popular gingerbread recipe! The tradition of creating gingerbread houses was first brought to America by German settlers and since then has become a quintessentially American tradition and a favorite with kids through the generations.

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