The Antiquity of Gingerbread Houses, a Christmas Decoration

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Christmas has many ancient traditions associated with it. Along with turkey, eggnog, Xmas cakes, Yule logs, cookies, there is a custom of baking gingerbread houses. Nuremberg, Germany was the recognised Gingerbread capital of the world. Spreading across Europe in the 13th century, the recipe spread to by German immigrants, Lily tells us, tracing its antiquity, in the weekly column, exclusively for Different Truths.

With Christmas around the corner, the cheerful smells, sounds, and sights make an appearance everywhere, adding warmth and brilliance to the chilly winter nights. Gingerbread houses stand out amidst the decorations and lights. They are so exquisitely crafted that it seems almost unfair to eat them.

Christmas has many ancient traditions associated with it. Along with turkey, eggnog, Xmas cakes, Yule logs, cookies, there is a custom of baking gingerbread houses. A gingerbread house is baked with cookie dough, after cutting it into appropriate shapes. The basic material is a crisp biscuit. The other method of fashioning the gingerbread house is by using a boiled dough that can be moulded like clay. This can easily be made into edible statuettes and other decorations. Children decorate the gingerbread houses and the Christmas trees with their parents’ help.

Food historians ratify that ginger, that quirky, ubiquitous root has been used to season drinks and food since antiquity. belief suggests that gingerbread was first baked in Europe towards the end of the 11th century. It seems the returning crusaders brought the custom of making spicy bread from the Middle East. Ginger that can be miraculously medicinal in tea also has properties that helped preserve bread. It is tasty as well. Ginger root was first cultivated in ancient China. It spread to Europe via the Silk Road.

French legends hint that an Armenian monk, Saint Gregory of Nicopolis, brought gingerbread to Europe, in 992. He taught priests and other Christians how to make gingerbread during the seven years that he lived in Bondaroy, France.

A medieval Christian , attested in a Greek document of the 8th century, supposedly of Irish origin tells us an interesting story. It is believed that along with the gold, myrrh, and frankincense given as gifts by the three wise men of the East (Magi) at the birth of Jesus, one wise man who couldn’t complete the journey to Bethlehem was getting the gift of ginger.

He gave his chest of ginger roots to the Rabbi who nursed him during his illness in a city in Syria. The Rabbi prophesied that the great king of Jews, who would be born in Bethlehem which means House of bread in the Hebrew language. The Magus suggested that the Rabbi’s students add ginger to the bread they baked for their houses that they baked to nourish their hopes for a Messiah. The ground ginger added flavour and zest.

Nuremberg, Germany was the recognised Gingerbread Capital of the world. Spreading across Europe in the 13th century, the recipe spread to Sweden by German immigrants.

The Vadstena Abbey of Swedish nuns baked gingerbread to help ease indigestion in 1444. Honey was the traditional sweetener along with spices like cinnamon, cloves nutmeg, and cardamom.

The court of Queen Elizabeth-I was the place where the first documented evidence of gingerbread figurines was found. Figure shaped gingerbread biscuits were baked.

According to another research, the first gingerbread houses were made because of the widely read Grimm’s fairy tale, Hansel, and Gretel, in which the abandoned kids in the forest found a house made of bread and sugar that was edible.

Gingerbread designs and patterns kept getting more intricate with time. Russian gingerbread makers made figures like Matryoshka dolls or Kolobok.

The National Gingerbread House Competition in Asheville, North Carolina attracts 400 of the best designs from across North America. The carved, white architectural details in American seaside homes are referred to as “gingerbread work”. Elaborately decorated gingerbread was synonymous with all fancy and elegant things in England. The decoration with gold leaf led to the popular expression “to take the gilt off of gingerbread.” The first American Cookbook, American Cookery by Amelia Simmons has recipes for three types of gingerbread, including the soft variety.

My favourite is the gingerbread cookies that peeped out at me from picture of fairy tales. They made my childhood magical.

©Lily Swarn

Photos from the Internet

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Lily Swarn

Lily Swarn

Lily Swarn won the Reuel International Prize for Poetry 2016, Global Poet of Peace and Universal Love, Global Icon of Peace from Nigeria, Virtuoso Award and Woman of Substance. A postgraduate in English from Panjab University, she taught at Sacred Heart College, Dalhousie. A gold medallist for Best All-round Student from GCG Chandigarh, she has University Colours for Dramatics. Widely published and interviewed, she authored, A Trellis of Ecstasy and Lilies of the Valley.
Lily Swarn

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