The History of Gingerbread – Cookies, Houses, and Everything in Between
The history of gingerbread spans many centuries and continents. Read on to learn about the evolution of this traditional Christmas treat.
Did you know that the second Saturday in December is set aside each year for National Gingerbread Decorating Day? It is one of many gingerbread themed National Days that we honor each year.
If you’ve ever wondered where gingerbread men came from, why we make gingerbread houses, and why gingerbread is a symbol of Christmas, you’ve come to the right place. Let’s dive into the rich history of this tasty treat.
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The Origin of Gingerbread
The word “gingerbread” comes from the Latin word zingiber (that comes from the old French word gingebras) which refers to preserved ginger.
Before we begin talking about gingerbread, we must first talk about ginger, the spice. It originated in Maritime Southeast Asia, and was one of the first spices exported from Asia through the spice trade.
Throughout the years, ginger was thought to have medicinal properties and qualities. Even today, we use ginger to treat certain kinds of ailments (for example, drinking ginger ale when you feel sick).
Ancient Greek and Egyptian civilizations made a version of gingerbread, however what we consider gingerbread now wasn’t introduced until 992 CE.
An Armenian monk, named Gregory of Nicopolis brought this gingerbread to Europe in 992 CE.
Since that time, gingerbread has gone through many changes, and is available in many different varieties. Gingerbread can be anything from a moist cake to a hard ginger biscuit.
We love to make gingerbread cookies for the holiday season but do you know the history behind our love of this tasty treat? Head to Always the Holidays to find out more. #gingerbread #holidayfood 👨🍳🍜 Click To Tweet
The History of Gingerbread Men
In the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth I (who reigned from 1533 to 1603) gave gifts of gingerbread men to her guests, suitors and visiting dignitaries. Though she did not invent gingerbread, her new idea to make gingerbread men was the first of its kind.
She had gingerbread cut into the shape of gingerbread men and decorated to resemble her guests. Having these gingerbread men, made in her visitors likenesses, wowed them!
This new gingerbread man cookie gained popularity in England after Queen Elizabeth I’s twist on the dessert.
Women in England began to have gingerbread men made and decorated to resemble the husbands they one day hoped to have. Though superstitious, it was thought that if a single woman ate one of these gingerbread husbands, it would aid her in finding a real husband.
The History of Gingerbread Houses
In the 16th century, in Germany, gingerbread houses were created. These houses had gingerbread walls and were with decorated foil and gold leaf.
When the Grimm’s fairy tale Hansel and Gretel was written in 1812, the popularity of gingerbread houses rose.
In the story, two children that are lost in the woods that find a house made entirely of candy. If you haven’t read it, I won’t spoil the story but instead suggest you read it here yourself.
Gingerbread houses are now decorated with much more than gold leaf and foil, you can use any candy available to make a spectacular gingerbread house. Many use a special kind of royal icing to attach the parts together.
The Guinness Book of World Records asserts that Texas holds the record for the biggest gingerbread house coming in at 1,110.1 m³ (39,201.8 ft³).
When this gingerbread house was built, its aim was to raise money for a hospital trauma wing by charging a fee for guests to visit the gingerbread house. It was so popular that it raised over $150,000 for the hospital wing!
Gingerbread Capital of the World
In addition to being the birthplace of gingerbread houses, Germany is also a hub of gingerbread activity. During Christmastime, there are street markets all around Germany.
Nuremberg was even named the gingerbread capital of the world in the 1600s!
In Germany there are two versions of gingerbread, also known as lebkuchen. One version is a soft cookie, and the other is a harder cookie.
The harder lebkuchen is usually made in a heart shape and inscribed with love message written in icing. They are sold at street markets around Christmas in many towns in Germany, and have become a token of love to give to a partner.
The Nuremberg Lebkuchen
Since July of 1996, lebkuchen that come from Nuremberg (called “Nuremberg Lebkuchen”) have protected geographical indication from the European Union.
That means that in order for lebkuchen to be called “Nuremberg Lebkuchen“, they have to come from the region of Nuremberg and meet a certain set of standards.
It’s the same philosophy as the sparkling wine called Champagne. Sparkling wine can be made anywhere. However, the only ones allowed to be called Champagne come from the Champagne region in France, and meet a certain set of quality standards.
Why is Gingerbread Associated with Christmas
In the 17th century, gingerbread was often shaped into the image of religious icons, and was therefore considered a sacred practice.
Throughout the year, only specially trained gingerbread bakers that were members of a bakers guild were allowed to create gingerbread.
During Christmas and Easter, this guild requirement was lifted, and anyone was able to bake gingerbread. However, at all other times in the year, only those who belonged to the bakers guild could continue to bake gingerbread.
In current times, gingerbread is not treated as a sacred, religious practice, and can be baked by anyone at any time. While gingerbread can be baked year round now, it is still primarily seen as a symbol of the Christmas holiday.
Today, many homes assemble gingerbread houses, bake gingerbread cookies, and some even adorn their Christmas trees with gingerbread garland!
You can even visit Christmas themed shops and purchase specially made gingerbread cookies to share with loved ones over the holidays.
Gingerbread Fun Facts
Now that you know a little more about gingerbread, let’s dive in to some fun facts about gingerbread!
- There are three national days that celebrate gingerbread: National Gingerbread Day, National Gingerbread Cookie Day, and National Gingerbread House Day.
- The gingerbread house that holds the Guinness Book of World Records title for largest gingerbread house was 21 feet high, covered 2,520 square feet, and contained 35.8 million calories!
- in 1784, George Washington’s mother, Mary Ball Washington had her own special recipe for gingerbread.
- According to Swedish tradition, you can make a wish on gingerbread wishing cookies. All you have to do is make a wish, put the cookie in the palm of your left hand and press on the center with your right thumb. If the cookie breaks into three pieces and you eat them all without speaking, you wish will come true!
- In the 1600s, Nuremberg, Germany was named the gingerbread capital of the world, and it still remains that today!
More Historical Trivia Posts
Are you a fan learning the history behind other foods, inventions and trends? If you are, be sure to also check out these posts to learn more!
- History of mistletoe – Ever wondered why it’s a tradition to kiss under mistletoe? Learn this and more!
- Candy apples vs caramel apples – Where did they come from, which is better, and why are they historically significant?
- Chinese New Year – Curious about the Chinese New Year, and want to learn more? Check out this page!
- History of the bikini – This garment changed fashion as we know it in 1946. Learn more about its controversial introduction to the fashion scene!
- History of vinyl records – It’s true that trends are always changing, and items are constantly moving in and out of popularity. Check out why vinyl records never lost their spark!
- Irish coffee origin – Did you know, Irish coffee wouldn’t exist without flying boats, a humorous chef, & bad weather?
- National Tea Day – No matter what kind of tea you like, iced or hot, these tea facts are for you!
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About the author
Since graduating from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Jess Speake has been living and working in Los Angeles, CA. She is a freelance writer, specializing in content related to fashion, food and drink and film industry topics. Find out more about Jess here.
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