Gingerbread Houses Have Historical and Literary Connections

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CH Patisserie, a bakery in downtown Sioux Falls, S.D., displays this wonderful–and very large–gingerbread house. (Photos by Deb Watley)

Gingerbread houses are a fun, wintery decoration. Yet, they are also a fascinating bit of food craft, architecture, artistry, history, and literary tradition.

In the 1500s–in what’s now Germany–the Brothers Grimm story of Hansel and Gretel featured an edible house. The story may have come first, or the gingerbread houses may have been an inspiration for the story. But, the story and the making of gingerbread houses seem to be linked.

Gingerbread dates back thousands of years ago. The ginger root was grown in China. But, a couple thousand years before Christ was born, the Greeks were using ginger to make gingerbread. This would have been a hard-style of gingerbread they used in religious ceremonies.

By the 11th Century, Europeans were making gingerbread shaped like people, animals, flowers, etc. Gingerbread was a festival food. In fact, some of the festivals were called gingerbread fairs.

Americans have adopted the hard-type of gingerbread for cookies and houses, but Americans also historically had a cake-like version of gingerbread. Both George Washington’s mother, Mary Ball Washington, and Laura Ingalls Wilder were known for their cake-like gingerbread.

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The Laura Ingalls Wilder Country Cookbook contains Laura’s gingerbread recipe.

But why are the houses a winter tradition? I’m not sure, except of course, the frosting looks like snow, and the candies and gingerbread epitomize the sweets we eat at Christmas.

There is one other reason of a very practical nature alluded to in the book, The Gingerbread Architect by Susan Matheson and Lauren Chairman. The hard gingerbread stays hard in the dryer air of winter and furnaces (in the northern hemisphere). In a humid environment, the gingerbread would soften, and the houses wouldn’t be able to hold their shapes.

Sources and more info:

The History of Gingerbread (and a recipe)

Gingerbread: History, Traditions and Where to See the World’s Sweetest Artwork

A Brief History of Gingerbread

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One of my kids’ favorite winter/Christmas picture books.

Do you like to eat gingerbread? Have you ever made gingerbread people and/or houses? What other literary and/or historical links are there to gingerbread houses?

7 comments

  1. jheitman22

    I had never thought of gingerbread’s history! Thanks for the tasty lesson. Yes, we like gingerbread, but hard and soft, but I’ve never had much luck making houses.

    • Deb Watley

      I’ve never tried the soft version. I only like to eat the cookie version in small doses. But, I love to see the houses. I made one once, from scratch, years ago. It took me days, but it was a lot of fun! I kept it until it got buggy. My next one will probably be ceramic! 😉

  2. Mary Louise Sanchez

    My family and I made an adobe gingerbread house many years ago. I especially remember that we made the farolitos (votive candle in a small, weighted brown paper sack) with cubes of caramel and the flames were a touch of red licorce. I wish I had taken a picture of it, since we weren’t able to use it again the next year.

    • Deb Watley

      Your adobe gingerbread house sounds wonderful! And I love the caramel and licorice farolitos! I’m curious–were you able to make rounded edges? Did your frosting give a snowy look, or were you able to keep all the frosting hidden? Also, is gingerbread flavoring (in coffee, baked goods, etc.) popular in the Southwest?

  3. Marcia Strykowski

    What a beautiful gingerbread house! I haven’t done this for a while, but I used to enjoy making little gingerbread people, hand shaped, rather than with cutters. The history you’ve dug up is fascinating. I think I remember reading that Emily Dickinson used to send gingerbread down from her window in a basket for neighborhood children to enjoy.

  4. Deb Watley

    Marcia, when you shaped your gingerbread people, did you make any resembling friends and family? 🙂 If Emily did send gingerbread down to the neighborhood children, she must have been quite popular with them!

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