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.
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.
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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?