By Mac Carey
Gingerbread is a popular Christmas treat all over the world, in many different forms. Gingerbread first appeared in central Europe in the Middle Ages, made from sugars and spices that had been brought back from the Middle East by soldiers returning from the Crusades. In England, gingerbread only meant "preserved ginger," referring to the preservative effect of ginger on breads, cakes, and other pastries. It wasn't until the 15th century that gingerbread referred specifically to the sweet cake made with treacle and ginger. And it wasn't until the nineteenth century that the treat became associated primarily with Christmas.
Gingerbread became so popular in Europe that "gingerbread fairs," gatherings where people could sample the popular delicacy, proliferated in small and large towns alike. The sweet became most popular in Germany, France, and England. Gingerbread took on different forms from region to region, from spiced cake, to thin cookies, to a dark brown bread served with cream. From early on gingerbread was cut into interesting shapes and symbols that reflected the season. At autumn fairs cookies were shaped into animals and birds. At Easter, buttons and flowers were popular shapes. Sometimes the cookies were just flattened and cut into simple circles, called "snaps."
Many English villages had a tradition of young women eating gingerbread men, or "husbands," to ensure that they would soon be married. Often towns would have a fair on the day of their patron saint, at these fairs gingerbread cookies would have the saint's image stamped into them, sometimes decorated with edible icing or dusted with white sugar to make the image stand out.
Decoration was always a unifying aspect of gingerbread. Before cookie cutters appeared in the nineteenth century, bakers created shapes by using cookie boards. Cookie boards were large wooden boards with impressed pictures carved into them. The cookie board was turned over and pressed onto rolled out dough, impressing the carvings into the dough. Common cookie board patterns were suns, moons, and flowers. Elaborate shapes were more popular in Germany than in England, where cookies were commonly cut out with a glass or teacup.
Early on gingerbread was made by monks, but by the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries bakers began to specialize in the treat. In France and England these bakers formed guilds, and were given the exclusive right to make gingerbread, except at Christmas and Easter. As the price of the exotic spices used in gingerbread went down, average people began to eat more gingerbread, though the dessert was still reserved as a treat on special occasions, usually holidays. Gingerbread continued to flourish throughout Europe, in particular in Germany.
The city of Nuremberg became associated with the treat, and while popular all year round, it became especially ubiquitous at Christmastime. Vendors in Nuremberg earned the moniker "pepper sacks," referring to the inclusion of spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, and white pepper in German recipes. Gingerbread houses first began here, inspired by the witch's edible house in the fairy tale "Hansel and Gretel." These houses were sometimes referred to as "hexenhaeusle" (witches' houses) and are also called "lebkuchenhaeusle" or knusperhaeuschen" or " houses for nibbling at." As for decorations, houses became more and more intricate as techniques evolved. Before commercial candy was available to use for decorations, artists were hired to stencil and gild the houses.
The popularity of gingerbread cookies and houses spread to colonial America. Recipes varied from region to region, according to the national origin of the immigrants who had settled there. Most recipes had fewer spices than in European recipes, and often settlers included local ingredients. Maple syrup molasses was included in many recipes in northern areas of the country, while sorghum molasses was used in the South. Gingerbread houses were also extremely popular in early America, more popular than in England. Furthermore, the hard style American gingerbread more closely resembled traditional German recipes than the softer English gingerbread. This similarity was even stronger in areas like Pennsylvania with a large German immigrant population. In these areas cookie boards were also commonly used.
It is said that Queen Victoria, and her German-born husband Prince Albert, brought gingerbread cookies in vogue when they included it in with the other German Christmas traditions they adopted, like the Christmas tree and the Yule log, in the mid-nineteenth century. It was at this time that gingerbread cookies became associated primarily with Christmas.
The development of tin cookie cutters in the mid-nineteenth century also breathed new life into the tradition of gingerbread. The new cookie cutters heralded the end of the long-established cookie board. They allowed the dough to be shaped into more elaborate figures, and soon these elaborate cookies began to appear as ornaments on trees and as other types of Christmas decorations. Early cookie cutters were usually shaped in the likeness of birds, stars, and animals.
It wasn't until the late nineteenth century that more standard Christmas symbols like elves, Santas, and snowmen, became the norm for cookie cutters.
Today gingerbread cookies and houses are as popular as ever, and have become an entrenched Christmas tradition in America.