Gingerbread is yet another of those foods that have become practically synonymous with the holiday season. Gingerbread houses are a Christmas staple, and gingerbread cookies are a firm holiday favorite as well. Clearly, there is no shortage of interesting holiday practices. From catchy Christmas songs, to stockings and tree-decorating, gingerbread also ranks as one of the more unique holiday traditions. But how did it all begin? In this post, we’ll look at all things gingerbread, and provide a short history of gingerbread houses.
The History of Gingerbread Houses
Since early days in ancient China, ginger has been lauded for its medicinal properties. Even today, ginger is commonly used as a remedy for digestion and stomach issues. During the Middle Ages, it was also used to improve the flavor of preserved meat, and Henry VII even believed it could be used to build up an immunity to the plague (to which the rats scoffed).
Gingerbread dates back as far as the Greeks in 2400 BC, although it did not seem to exist in its current form until at least the 15th century when it became a popular sweet. One story suggests that Queen Elizabeth I, in the 16th century, commissioned a batch of gingerbread cookies fashioned after visiting dignitaries. Regardless of who first had the idea to decorate them in this way, throughout this time gingerbread increased in popularity in England. Actual Gingerbread Fairs became regular occurrences, with the shapes corresponding to the season and current trends.
The first gingerbread houses appeared in Germany in the 16th century. Intricate creations decorated with gold leaf and foil became popular, which may have led to the Brothers Grimm sending Hansel and Gretel to a house made entirely of sweets in the 19th century. However, some claim it was this famous story that kicked off the trend of gingerbread house-building, not the other way around. Either way, from that time forward gingerbread houses have become firmly associated with the holidays.
Why Do We Make Gingerbread Houses Today?
Gingerbread made its way to America in the traditional way, in the hearts and minds of the colonists. In fact, a recipe for gingerbread features in the very first American cookbook ever written, “American Cookery” by Amelia Simmons. While gingerbread itself was common among a variety of colonists, it was the Germans later on who were mainly responsible for the idea of gingerbread houses.
Today, gingerbread is an extremely popular holiday treat, with large, competitive gingerbread fairs being held annually. Gingerbread baking guilds have actually existed for centuries in France, Germany, Poland, Hungary, Russia, and the Czech Republic, where they are considered a legitimate art form and entire museums are dedicated to their creation.
Fun Facts About Gingerbread Houses
Mary Ball Washington, the mother of George Washington, served gingerbread to the Marquis Lafayette when he visited their home in Virginia. From then on, that version was known as Gingerbread Lafayette.
The intricately carved architecture on American seaside homes is sometimes referred to as gingerbread work because of the similarities to the carefully-decorated figures from the gingerbread fairs.
Traditions Golf Club in Bryan, Texas, now holds the record for the largest gingerbread house ever made, thanks to the monstrous 39,200 cubic foot creation they put together in 2013. It was 22-feet tall and featured 2,500 pounds of edible decorations on the outside alone. And, for those wondering how eating a giant gingerbread house might fit into their current diet, it would have been worth an estimated 36 million calories.
A National Gingerbread House Competition has taken place in Asheville, North Carolina, every year since 1992. There are normally over 400 elaborate houses that can be viewed for free from November to January. The rules stipulate that each house must be able to withstand months of viewing, be made of at least 75% gingerbread, and be 100% edible.
Can you name these well-known movies depicted in the gingerbread form?
So, the next time you see a fancy gingerbread house front and center at a Christmas party, you’ll be thrilled to be able to entertain all the guests with some fascinating facts about gingerbread. Who knew the history of gingerbread houses was so sweet?