December 12th is said to be “Gingerbread House Day”. What is the meaning of this celebration? Where did this tradition begin? So many of our holidays today began as a religious day of honor, though many have spun into commercial ventures, losing so much of the meaning and the honor that was intended on that day.
One of the many ways we celebrate what is now known as the holiday season is by making gingerbread houses. Gingerbread is baked in large pieces which are then formed together to make the walls and roof of the house, held together by frosting. The house is then decorated with a variety of candies and treats, giving the gingerbread house features like a tile roof, window frames, a walkway, and so much more.
Where did the tradition of making gingerbread houses find its origin? We can go back to the fable of Hansel and Gretel. In this fable the innocent children come upon the house of a witch who imprisons them with plans to eat the children. The witches house, it was said, was made of gingerbread and other sweets, making a stop at this house very tempting, to say the least.
Gingerbread is a very old treat, with recognition from medieval times. The medieval crusaders journeyed home from the middle east with many ingredients that are used today in making our gingerbread houses: the sugars, spices, almonds and citrus fruits.
Celebrations in olden days often involved special foods, unlike today where are everyday meals often include sweets and treats. Catholic monks used to make special cakes to celebrate the various festivals and saints’s days, decorating these cakes with religious themes. Cookie boards were created over which the dough was rolled, and the impression was made in the dough. Over time gingerbread cookies endured, with little gingerbread people, stars, flowers, animals or birds.
Christmas related traditions
Traditions continued on with celebrations in December of the visit of Sinter Klaus, aka Saint Nicholas. In celebration many would bake speculaas cookies. These cookies were often shaped like people and farm animals, windmills, and other representations of daily life. Sometimes the cookies were made to represent a character or image from a folk tale or legend. In Germany a special gingerbread called lebkuchenforms was made into delightful cookies, shaped in images such as a sunburst to celebrate the solstice and the gradual lengthening of the days.
In France the gingerbread treats were called spice bread or pain d’epices, mixing ginger, allspice and honey for the easily recognizable gingerbread flavor. In Italy gingerbread also included nuts and dried fruits.
The tastes of the old country were carried into the Americas. Gingerbread cookies were not so much associated with Christmas, but with the many other celebrations during this dark winter days, such as the new years celebration.
Gingerbread cookies have been created through the centuries with so many varieties. In time the old rolling boards were joined, or replaced, with cookie cutters, giving shapes like stars and christmas trees. Cookies were used as christmas ornaments as well. What was once used a means of celebrating a religious holiday became much more commercial, more about the season than any day, but nowadays just like any other time we need our times of celebration.
Isn’t it ironic, the story of Hansel and Gretel and the witch who planned to eat the children, and our own enjoyment of eating little gingerbread boys and houses? Nowadays we rarely cook our own gingerbread, but gingerbread kits are so readily available, or already made gingerbread houses. Whether you are celebrating a religious day or a seasonal tradition, the gingerbread house and gingerbread cookies will continued to be a part of our winter celebrations.