Ever wonder where the tradition of the gingerbread house comes from? Or why it’s associated with the holiday season?
Ginger was originally incorporated into foods as a preservative; it has deep roots throughout Europe and Asia. The ginger root has been used for flavor and medicinal purposes. Originally cultivated in China, ginger spread to Europe via the Silk Road. Once people began to combine ginger with honey or molasses, it was regarded as a delicacy.
The first records of gingerbread houses show its origins in Germany during the 16th century; they became popular when the Brothers Grimm published the story “Hansel and Gretel” in 1812. The story involves a house made entirely of sweets, so people began to make small houses of their own.
So why the association with Christmas? There are a few theories. One is that because the food was a delicacy, it was served at holidays such as Christmas and Easter. Another theory is the ginger helped to calm the stomach after consuming large quantities of rich holiday food.
But perhaps more significantly, the association has biblical roots with the story of Jesus’ birth. Bethlehem, the town of Jesus’ birth, translates to “house of bread” in Hebrew. There is a legend that tells of a fourth wise man-- not one of the iconic three wise men who gifted Jesus with gold, frankincense, and myrrh. He was too sick to visit Jesus and so instead sent a Rabbi to offer him a chest of ginger roots. Because of the prophecies that foretold of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, this particular Rabbi would teach his students to make houses out of bread in anticipation of Christ’s arrival. The sick wiseman suggested they add ginger to the bread for flavor.
Elizabeth I of England had figures fashioned out of gingerbread and shaped to look like her distinguished guests (the first gingerbread men).