The holiday tradition of little gingerbread men and gingerbread houses comes from a long history. The tasty treats are made with ginger root, which was first grown in ancient China and used as a medicine. The spice didn’t get to Europe until the 11th century, when the Crusaders brought it back from the Middle East.
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 sold at the medieval fairs. Gingerbread tied with a ribbon was popular and, when exchanged, became a token of love. Later, some of the festivals became known as Gingerbread Fairs, and the cookies were called “fairings.” The shapes were changed according to the season, from flowers in the spring to birds in the fall.
The cookies were made into shapes to tell the news of the day, depicting everything from monarchs to religious symbols. Queen Elizabeth I created the first gingerbread man. When guests arrived in England, they were blown away by little gingerbread cookies she’d had created in their own likeness.
Gingerbread houses came from Germany during the 16th century. These elaborate creations were usually more for display than actual eating. They soon became a Christmas tradition, and their popularity only grew once the Brothers Grimm wrote the story of Hansel and Gretel, who got lost in a forest and found a house made completely out of candy.
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 rest of the house is edible.