Last year during the holiday season, I purchased one of those gingerbread house kits from a local grocery store. For as long as I can remember, however, I have always wanted to make and decorate a gingerbread house. It certainly has not helped that I became obsessed with those holiday cake decorating shows on television. They made it seem so darned easy. Spoiler alert! I am the least "crafts" person you will ever meet.
Ginger has its place as part of our holiday tradition for more than just cookies and houses. We know that the three wise men gifted the baby Jesus gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Did you know that there was a fourth wise man who got sick and could not make the journey to Bethlehem? Guess what he was bringing. Yep, ginger! Gingerbread has been part of the holiday season for centuries. In medieval times, artistic bakers would create gingerbread cookies in their partners' shape as a gesture of their undying love. These bakers used individually made crude wood molds to build the cookie's form and then would paint with icing and even gold leaf.
The first evidence of a gingerbread recipe dates to the end of the 10th century. A monk from Armenia known as Gregoy of Nicopolos brought his version of gingerbread to France. It took almost 200 years before gingerbread became widespread throughout Europe. By then, everyone so enjoyed gingerbread that it spawned numerous festivals and events.
There is debate as to where the idea of shaping gingerbread men like we see today originates. The Dutch claim that it started in the Netherlands. As part of their wedding rituals, guests gifted gingerbread cookies in the shape of biblical characters. Abraham and Sarah gingerbread cookies were a gift wishing the bride and groom success in conceiving a child.
The other possibility, which is considered more likely, is that Queen Elizabeth I ordered them as gifts for her guests. It did not take long for this to catch on, and soon everyone in the royal court, including servants were giving out gingerbread men. Receiving a gingerbread man from a suitor was a serious statement. Gingerbread was quite expensive. Knights would ensure their gift would be esteemed by providing cookies decorated with colorful birds, flowers and even their family crest.
Many believe that decorated gingerbread houses began in the early 19th century in Germany. This belief is credited to the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretal. As the two children "came nearer, they saw that the house was built of bread, and roofed with cakes, and the window was of transparent sugar." With this Grimm fairy tale's popularity, bakers in Germany seized on the opportunity to craft and sell decorative and tasty gingerbread houses.
In Germany, unless you were part of the gingerbread bakers’ guild, you were not allowed to bake and decorate a gingerbread house. The only exception was at Easter or Christmas, where anyone could create their own without fear of reprisal.
Today, many folks make a gingerbread house before Christmas as part of their holiday tradition. Kits make it easier for those of us who are baking-challenged. I prefer the prefab gingerbread slab housing available. With the melted sugar, it is easy to assemble the house. The fun part is when you get to decorate with colorful candy and icing sugar. Sadly, even with the do-it-yourself kit, my baking skills may not be worthy of respect from the bakers' guilds in Germany. The fun and memories, however, will last a lifetime.
Wishing you a happy holiday season from all of us at SOLutions Mexico. (Where we are much better at decorating and furnishing your real home than your gingerbread one!)