Launching the Christmas Season with Gingerbread!
Thanksgiving is past and IMO that means the Christmas season is HERE!!! I can guarantee that over this past weekend we got our tree up and I at least started decorating the house. I simply LOVE, LOVE, LOVE CHRISTMAS! Hands down my favorite holiday season, which is why I shall be blogging all about Christmas for the rest of the month. With this commitment made, I had to search for fresh topics because over the years I’ve written tons of blogs with Christmas themes. Over 20, in fact! A list with links to all those past posts can be found in the Pemberley Library under the “Christmas” section (scroll down the page a bit).
To launch the weeks ahead of joyous Christmas-themed blogs, let’s start with something sweet… and a bit spicy: GINGERBREAD!
The meaning of the word gingerbread has been reshaped over the centuries. In Medieval England, any kind of preserved ginger was “gingerbread” from the Old French gingebras, which in turn was from the Latin name, zingebar. In other words, the “bread” part of gingerbread did not necessarily or exclusively refer to a cake-like confection.
Ginger, the root, has an ancient history of use in foods and medicines. Ginger root originated in the rainforests of Southern Asia, was later exported to India, and then Europe during the early spice trade via the Silk Road. Sweet concoctions with ginger as a primary ingredient, including breads and cakes, can be traced to ancient Greeks and Romans. There are recipes dating to two-thousand years BC from China and Greece. However, ginger was also a favored spice to disguise the taste of preserved meats in savory dishes, was used as a food preservative, and had medicinal uses such as a cure for stomach ailments… among many other uses.
Thanks to the 11th century Crusaders, gingerbread and ginger were introduced to Western Europe. The refinement of flour was not as advanced, so recipes using all sorts of options flourished. Ground almonds and breadcrumbs mixed with honey, molasses, and syrups created a thick paste that could be shaped and baked into very hard cookies which were then perfect to decorate.
Legend has it that the gingerbread man is a creation of Queen Elizabeth I, who gifted favored courtiers and impressed visiting dignitaries by presenting with a gingerbread cookie in their likeness. The cookies were already common and beloved, but forming them into a human shape was new. The trend flourished during Medieval England with gingerbread cookies made to resemble royalty and other dignitaries — as well as flowers, leaves, birds, and other nature-related objects. Decorating was standard and often done with edible gold leaf gilding and white icing. The treat was a staple at fairs and festivals, to the point where they became known as “Gingerbread Fairs.”
And I had but one penny in the world, thou should’st have it to buy gingerbread. —William Shakespeare, 1598 “Love’s Labor’s Lost”
England was not alone in loving ginger spiced treats. Germany, France, Switzerland, and essentially every European country created their own recipes for gingerbread. Ginger snaps, thin or thick, hard or soft, dark and spicy or light and mildly spiced, plain or glazed… gingerbread evolved into every variety imaginable. While gingerbread could certainly be a basic round cookie, the standard in all cultures appears to be forming them into familiar shapes and decorating accordingly.
As early as the Middle Ages, governments in Germany, Poland, Russia, France, and Hungary sanctioned gingerbread baking guilds where the creation of gingerbread became an art form. The city of Nuremberg became known as the “gingerbread capital of the world” in the 1600s, with master bakers creating elaborate works of art. The oldest recorded gingerbread recipe, dating to the 16th century, is kept in the Germanic National Museum in Nuremberg. Several European countries have museums displaying vast collections of incredible antique molds used to make ornaments and houses out of gingerbread.
GINGERBREAD COOKIES AROUND THE WORLD
Polish pierniczki and piernik
Speaking of the gingerbread house, these originated in Germany during the 16th century. Elaborate cookie-walled houses decorated with foil in addition to gold leaf became popular in Germany and associated with Christmas tradition very early on. However, most historians thank the Brothers Grimm for the worldwide enthusiasm for gingerbread houses. The 1812 publication of “Hansel and Gretel” by the Brothers Grimm described a witch’s cottage in the forest made entirely of candy and cake. Whether the Brothers were inspired by gingerbread houses when compiling their story is unclear, although they were merely composing based on old folk legends so it is quite likely the German cookie houses played some part. What is certain is that their fairytale increased the awareness of and popularity for houses made with hard gingerbread.
“…they saw that the little house was built entirely from bread with a roof made of cake, and the windows were made of clear sugar.” —The Brothers Grimm, “Hansel and Gretel”
Gingerbread was brought to the New World with the English colonists, no surprise there. What is unique is that Americans tended to prefer softer gingerbread and were among the first to create recipes calling for butter and other ingredients that made the cookies less hard and more cake-like. The first American cookbook — American Cookery by Amelia Simmons in 1796 — has recipes for three different types of gingerbread including a soft variety baked in loaves.
The strong influence of German settlers, particularly in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, established many of our cherished Christmas traditions. Gingerbread houses are one of them. In fact, gingerbread houses have never been as popular in most European countries as they were/are in Germany. America comes close in its adoration of gingerbread houses, with many places such as Disneyland and Disney World creating massive gingerbread houses each year.
Gingerbread at Christmas
The above images beg the question: How did gingerbread become closely associated with Christmas? I mean, it isn’t like gingerbread can’t be made any time of the year! Indeed, we have seen an increase in Halloween-themed gingerbread houses, but there is no doubt that Christmas is when gingerbread really takes over.
There are varied theories as to how gingerbread came to be associated with Christmas, but, alas, the answer is based on conjecture and remains largely a mystery.
One idea is that the gingerbread men, if made simply, resembled a child or even a baby so they came to represent the baby Jesus. Another possibility is that the spices used with ginger to make the cookies (cloves, cinnamon, anise, cardamom, nutmeg) were seen as “exotic” from the Far East and akin to frankincense and myrrh (the gifts of the Wise Men to the baby Jesus).
Perhaps the calming to the tummy qualities of ginger made it a perfect harvest festival and Christmas celebrating addition. After all, nothing says overeating like Christmas! Better a gingerbread cookie than ginger ale, am I right? Or, maybe it is the interactive, family activity aspect of shaping and decorating the cookies and houses, especially when locked inside due to the cold outside, that contributed to gingerbread evolving into a Christmas season speciality.
On the face of it, gingerbread houses might seem contrary to the joyous Christmas season, if looked at via the “Hansel and Gretel” lens. Nasty child-eating witches don’t really scream warm and fuzzy, do they? But, remember that the Germans were decorating gingerbread houses long before the Brothers Grimm, and dark gingerbread trimmed with white icing creates a picturesque wintery scene fitting for Christmas in northern climates.
The truth of gingerbread at Christmas is probably a melding of origins, but who cares?
Gingerbread is delicious so that is good enough for me!
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic.
Do you like your gingerbread soft or hard?
Have you made a gingerbread house? Is it a tradition in your family?