In my family, gingerbread houses are one of the most exciting Christmas traditions. I have one sister and two stepsisters, and every year the competition for the best gingerbread house incites my competitive nature like almost nothing else. The approaching Christmas season got me thinking about the history of gingerbread houses and where my favourite tradition originates from.
Gingerbread is thought to have first been baked in Europe at the end of the eleventh century, when crusaders brought back spiced bread from the Middle East. Gingerbread became a popular treat, even once being prescribed to the King of Sweden as a ‘cure’ for his depression. It became so popular that bakers specifically adopted the role of ‘gingerbread baker’, and in the seventeenth century only these professional bakers were permitted to bake gingerbread. The exception to this was during the festive holidays of Christmas and Easter, when anyone was allowed to bake it. This is partly why we now associate gingerbread with the Christmas period.
The popularity of gingerbread meant it began to be sold in Europe in seasonal markets and special shops, baked into a variety of shapes such as hearts, stars, soldiers and babies. There was a market for gingerbread within religion too: it was frequently sold outside churches on Sundays. The gingerbread would be decorated and given to adults and children as love tokens, and would be particularly heavily distributed among the guests at weddings. I have never personally been given gingerbread at a wedding myself, but I can imagine it livening up the occasion. It is certainly something I will consider if I ever find myself planning one.
By this point gingerbread was becoming a form of popular art in Europe. There were cities that had major centres of gingerbread carvings, such as Lyon, Nuremberg and Prague. These were often created to display real life events, such as depictions of new rulers and their consorts. This would have been an intricate and impressive business, one that would have contributed towards the almost ‘elitist’ nature of gingerbread baking that was observed during the seventeenth century.
The tradition of making decorated gingerbread houses is generally said to have started in Germany in the early 1800s, despite the existence of records that seem to indicate that gingerbread houses have been around since Ancient Egypt. Some historians attribute the origin of gingerbread houses to the publication of the Grimm’s fairy tale ‘Hansel and Gretel’. In the story, two children abandoned in a forest find an edible house made of sugar decorations. The legend goes those German bakers took inspiration from the book and began baking such ornamented fairy tale houses of lebkuchen(gingerbread). However, other historians say that the Grimm brothers wrote ‘Hansel and Gretel’ about something that already happened, but the story of Hansel and Gretel clearly played an influential role in the popularity of gingerbread houses. The tradition reached America with the Germans who emigrated to Pennsylvania and continued to spread from there.
Something interesting and rather wholesome that I discovered during my research is that since 1991, the people of Bergen, Norway have built a city of gingerbread houses each year before Christmas. Named Pepperkakebyen (Norwegian for gingerbread village), children younger than 12 can help make their own house for free with the help of their parents. I wish we had something like that in London, because I cannot imagine a Christmas experience more enjoyable than walking through a city of gingerbread (except maybe eating one).
Featured Image: Harriet Banks