I’ve always loved gingerbread houses. There’s something about all that architecture reproduced in miniature scale that reminds me of an edible dollhouse—from the peppermint stepping stones, to the royal icing icicles, to the bubblegum shingles. The child in me remains fascinated by them, and I’ve shared the love of decorating them with my own children each Christmas.
Gingerbread itself has a long history. Crusaders returning to Europe brought ginger and gingerbread back from the Middle East around the 11th century. Ginger was used to preserve bread, and it was crumbs from this ginger bread, mixed with honey or other sweeteners, that gave rise to the cake-like version of gingerbread.
In Germany, however, the firmer, cookie-like form of gingerbread became popular. Bakers would use molds to cut the gingerbread dough into different shapes depending on the season. We think of gingerbread cookies as a Christmas tradition, but back then they were used to celebrate all sorts of occasions. Imprinted with birds and eggs for Easter, hearts for weddings, and so on, gingerbread cookies were a favorite treat of the Middle Ages. It was even the custom in some villages for young women to eat a man-shaped gingerbread cookie on New Year’s day so that they might have luck finding a husband in the new year.
It wasn’t until the 1500s that gingerbread became associated with Christmas, when Elizabeth I of England presented gingerbread cutouts to favorite members of her court for the holiday. Thereafter, immigrants (particularly German immigrants) brought gingerbread recipes and customs with them to America.
When the Brothers Grimm published Hansel and Gretel, in which two young children stumble upon a witch’s house made entirely of gingerbread and candy, gingerbread houses became much more popular. There’s some disagreement about whether gingerbread houses existed earlier (and the Brothers Grimm merely documented a German baking custom), or whether the story itself gave rise to the gingerbread house tradition. Either way, gingerbread houses remain a popular American Christmas tradition to this day.
No matter how you celebrate this season, we hope you have a happy and safe holiday. Rockwell Institute will be closed December 24 and 25, but will reopen on Wednesday, December 26 to help you with any real estate questions you may have.