The Dark and Curious History of Gingerbread
Before occupying a strong presence in modern Christmas traditions, Gingerbread existed throughout history in some dark, and curious ways.
Today, Gingerbread and Christmas go together like rum and eggnog, or lights and evergreen trees. Cute and festive gingerbread men, decorated with icing smiles and candy buttons, remind us of childhood and holiday parties. How many of us remember building lopsided gingerbread houses alongside very patient parents or grandparents? Houses smelling spicy and sweet, that never quite tasted as wonderful as they looked after weeks on display. But you broke your teeth on them anyway, because they were covered in a riot of candy and chocolate. Gingerbread and Christmas are a tradition many of us don’t generally stop to think about, beyond our own fond recollections.
The other day a local baker dropped off a small bag of figurines, depicting Hansel and Gretel, a witch and black cat, to accompany her homemade gingerbread houses. Our surprised looks gave her pause. She was equally confused by our confusion. Originally from Switzerland, part of her gingerbread house tradition is to include elements that speak to its historical beginnings. In retrospect, a rather obvious history that we were innocently unaware.
While we knew the story of Hansel & Gretel, we had not connected our cherished gingerbread houses with a dark folk tale. How many of you knew that that before Gingerbread houses were a candy wonderland, they were fabled to house a cannibalistic witch, that enticed two abandoned children into her clutches with a promise of sweets? The tradition of making decorated gingerbread houses or “lebkuchen”, originated in Germany in the 1800’s after the publication of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. We were intrigued. What else could we discover about gingerbread?
Well, it has existed in various manifestations for a long time. Since about 2000 B.C. Ancient Greeks and Egyptians baked “spiced honey cakes” for ceremonial and religious purposes. In the beginning, the focus was primarily to honor images of saints, with special molds depicting religious figures. Over time, a house concept emerged, beginning first with wooden molds to create different shaped sweet breads. Early gingerbread was made from stale breadcrumbs, ground almond, rose water and ginger. It was often decorated with edible gold paint or flat white icing.
In medieval times gingerbread was sold at fairs, and people exchanged gingerbread tied with a ribbon to show affection to their loved ones. Gingerbread was shaped and decorated to look like flowers, birds and animals. Ladies would eat “gingerbread husbands” to superstitiously improve their likelihood of finding a match! This little tidbit of information was particularly fun to imagine.
Equally interesting, is the fact that Queen Elizabeth is credited with the invention of our present-day gingerbread men. Apparently, she presented visiting dignitaries gingerbread men created in their likeness. Somehow over time, these more detailed gingerbreads of rich dignitaries have transformed into chubby & childlike cookies, always happy, and up for some icing.
We are happy that gingerbread houses no longer reflect cannibalism and other terrors, but finding true love munching on cookies doesn’t seem so bad. Nevertheless, we hope you enjoyed learning a little about more about this holiday tradition. We sure did.