The holiday tradition of little gingerbread men and fancy decorated gingerbread houses comes from a long history of courtly gesture, medicinal uses, and knightly love. The tasty treats are made with ginger root, which was first cultivated in ancient China and used as a medical treatment. The spice didn’t make its way into Europe until the 11th century, when the Crusaders brought it back from the Middle East and gave it to the aristocrats’ cooks for experimentation.
Ginger was used during the Middle Ages to disguise the taste of preserved meats. King Henry VIII of England reportedly used it in a concoction that he hoped would build up his resistance to the plague. Today the spice is used for other remedies such as nausea and stomach ailments.
The first known recipe for gingerbread came from Greece in B.C. 2400. The Chinese developed recipes in the 10th century, and the Europeans had their own methods by the late Middle Ages.
The hard cookies were sometimes decorated with gold leaf and shaped like animals or kings and queens. In France, England, Holland, and Germany, they were staples at the medieval fairs. Gingerbread tied with a ribbon was popular at these events and, when exchanged, became a token of love. Later, some of the festivals became known as Gingerbread Fairs and the cookies served were called “fairings.” The shapes of the confections were changed according to season, from flowers in the spring to birds in the fall. William Shakespeare, in his work Love’s Labour’s Lost, said, “And I had but one penny in the world, thou should’st have it to buy gingerbread.”
The cookies were made into various shapes to tell the news of the day, depicting everything from monarchs to religious symbols. Queen Elizabeth I is credited with creating the first gingerbread man. When visiting dignitaries arrived, they were blown away by little gingerbread cookies she’d had created in their own likeness.
Gingerbread houses originated in Germany during the 16th century. These marvels, which were usually more for display than actual ingestion, could be very elaborate with cookie walls and frosting, decorated with foil in addition to gold leaf. They soon became a Christmas tradition, and their popularity only grew once the Brothers Grimm wrote the story of siblings Hansel and Gretel, who got lost in a forest and found a house made completely out of candy and other edible goodies.
Centuries later, the tradition of gingerbread men and houses still thrives. The world’s largest gingerbread house is in Bryan, Texas, and currently holds the Guinness World Record. It covers an area of 2,520 square feet (about the size of a tennis court) and is 21 feet tall. Although the frame is wood, the exterior of the house is all edible.