The History of Gingerbread – A Christmas Tradition
Does your family make gingerbread for Christmas? Mine does, and I’ve always loved this sweet tradition. Have you ever looked into the history of this spicy cookie? I knew gingerbread houses started in Germany, but I had no idea how wonderful the origin of gingerbread was. Once I ran across it, I knew I needed to share it with everyone!
The initial meaning of gingerbread dates back to medieval England, but it’s not the same meaning we know today. In the 15th century, the word meant “preserved ginger,” but now it refers to a wide variety of sweet treats that are made with a mix of ginger and honey, treacle, or molasses.
Ginger was first cultivated in China and was used as a medical treatment. As time progressed, the spice traveled to Europe via the Silk Road. In the Middle Ages, it was the preferred spice option for disguising the taste of preserved meats. Henry VIII reportedly ingested a ginger mixture in hopes of avoiding the plague. Even now, ginger is used medicinally for nausea and other stomach concerns.
The first known recipe for gingerbread came from Greece around 2400 BCE. As recipes for these ginger cookies spread around the world, the designs of the cookies changed as well. Many cookies were shaped like animals or royal figures during medieval fairs. Queen Elizabeth I came up with the idea of decorating cookies in this way and enjoyed making cookies that looked like members of her court.
Since gingerbread cookies were so popular at festivals, it became standard to see the cookies made in different shapes based on the season. Cookies would be made into flowers for spring festivals and birds in the fall. Gingerbread cookies became a sign of the more elegant side of England because of the gold leaf that was used to decorate them.
Gingerbread houses began in Germany during the 16th century. These cookie houses were decorated with foil and gold leaf and quickly became a Christmas tradition in the country. Their popularity really soared once the Brothers Grimm wrote about a house made entirely of treats in their fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel. Opinions are still divided over whether the houses inspired the fairy tale or if it was the other way around.
The Arrival in America
The tradition of Christmas gingerbread followed the colonists to the New World. In fact, gingerbread cookies were popular enough that they were sometimes used by political candidates to try to sway voters to vote for them over their competitors. The very first American cookbook featured three different gingerbread recipes.
Softer gingerbread became more popular in America than the harder versions used to make houses. Soft gingerbread can be cooked into loves or on pans as cookies. Of course, the most common version of a gingerbread cookie is absolutely the gingerbread man. These cookies are typically decorated with royal icing, sprinkles, and gumdrops, though you can decorate them however you please.
More recently, the world’s largest gingerbread house was built by the Mall of America in 2006. The house required its own building permit and was nearly 40,000 cubic feet. It was built like a normal home, using 4,000 gingerbread bricks during construction. A recipe to make that much gingerbread would need about 1,800 pounds of butter and 1,080 ounces of ground ginger. That’s a lot!
Delicious Gingerbread Cookie Recipe
You can’t learn about the history of gingerbread without wanting to make some of your own. Below, I’ve provided a standard gingerbread cookie recipe that’s perfect for making your own house if you’re up for the challenge or gingerbread men.
- ¾ cup of unsulphered molasses
- ¾ cup of butter
- ¾ cup of dark brown sugar
- 4 ½ cups of flour, plus more for the rolling surface
- 1 tsp of baking powder
- 1 tsp of salt
- ½ tsp of baking soda
- 3 ½ tsp of ground ginger
- 2 tsp of cinnamon
- 1 egg, lightly beaten
- Royal icing, optional
- Sprinkles, cinnamon candies, gumdrops, or other decorations, optional
- Medium saucepan
- Large mixing bowl
- Wax or parchment paper
- Rolling pin
- Cookie cutters
- Baking sheet
- Nonstick cooking spray or a silicone baking sheet
- Take a medium saucepan, heat the molasses to simmering. Remove from heat and stir in the butter until melted. Then, stir in the brown sugar. Allow to cool.
- In a large mixing bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, salt, baking soda, ginger, and cinnamon. Add the cooled molasses and egg to the flour mixture and mix very well until a dough forms. You may need to use your hands to mix this completely.
- Wrap the dough in wax or parchment paper and chill for one to two hours or until firm enough to roll.
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Transfer the chilled dough to a lightly floured rolling surface and roll out the dough to a one-quarter-inch thickness. Roll out about a quarter of the dough at a time.
- Cut cookies with your choice of cookie cutters.
- Transfer the cut dough to a baking sheet that’s been lightly greased with nonstick cooking spray or lined with a silicone baking sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 12 to 15 minutes. The cookies will puff up but shouldn’t spread much.
- Cool the cookies completely on a rack before decorating.
As Christmas is quickly approaching, I can’t help but think about all the wonderful family traditions this time of year. If you’re looking for timeless traditions that everyone will want to do each year, making homemade gingerbread cookies is a fun, classic option. Whether you’re making the cookies for Santa or for your family to eat, they’re a fun way to show off your creative side. Will you be making gingerbread men this Christmas? Or try your hand at a gingerbread house instead?