Many of us probably remember this line from that scene in the famous animated fairy tale film starring a particularly grumpy ogre in which the gingerbread man is being tortured by an evil lord who threatens to rip off his gumdrop buttons. Gingerbread figures are popular Christmas decorations; they even have their own gingerbread houses. But have you ever wondered where this cutesy, culinary tradition comes from?
Their origin goes back to a fourth wise man
The story begins, like many fairy tales, some centuries ago in the Middle East. There are different versions of how this fragrant bread arrived in Europe. Some say it was the Crusaders who brought it back from their battles at the end of the 11th century; others cite an Armenian monk, Gregory of Nicopolis, who brought it to France in 992, while yet others say that gingerbread was one of the gifts offered to the baby Jesus by a fourth wiseman who was delayed on his journey to Bethlehem.
Queen Elizabeth I had her royal baker make little figurines of distinguished guests
What is clear is that Europeans soon noticed that by adding spices (gingerbread doesn’t contain only ginger but also cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg) it helped the bread to last for longer. Consequently, the baking and shaping of this bread became an art form that only the best and most specialized bakers performed. The first record of gingerbread “people” being produced comes from the court of Queen Elizabeth I of England, who commissioned her baker to make figures of her most illustrious visitors as a way of paying tribute to them.
The “Hansel & Gretel” story started a Christmas tradition
Jumping over to early 19th century Germany, where, at that time, the Brothers Grimm, had just published a compilation of folk tales, including “Hansel and Gretel,” their version of a familiar European tale about a brother and sister who are abandoned in the forest only to be caught by a witch when they begin eating her gingerbread and candy house. Thus began the tradition of building gingerbread houses in Germany during the Christmas season and decorating them with a variety of ornate sweets.
Today, this charming Christmas tradition has been shared around the world, creating fun and fond memories for the whole family. Just don’t forget the gumdrops!