Decorating 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.
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.
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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