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The Un-Christmassy Origin of Gingerbread Houses

This tradition dates back to the story of Hansel and Gretel

The tradition of decorative gingerbread dates back to the Middle Ages. (Flickr)
smithsonian.com

Like most Christmas traditions, gingerbread houses are big business: Wilton, a popular confectionery-making company, reports that it created over two million gingerbread house kits in 2011. For those who are more DIY-inclined, domestic gurus from Martha Stewart on down offer recipes and plans for making your own sugary domicile. But in spite of gingerbread house-decorating’s cozy holiday connotations, the roots of this tradition may lie in the folktale Hansel and Gretel.

Now, gingerbread houses didn’t start with the Brothers Grimm. They date back to the 1600s, a few centuries after the emergence of gingerbread itself, writes food historian Tori Avey. The tale of Hansel and Gretel may be even older than that, some historians say, perhaps dating to a 14th century famine in which parents turned children out to fend for themselves.

By the time folklorists Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm composed and published a version of the tale in the early 19th century, gingerbread houses were a long-standing tradition. Somewhere along the way, possibly because of historical connections between gingerbread and religious ceremonies or guilds, gingerbread—and gingerbread houses—had become associated with Christmas. The Grimms’s widely read stories helped to popularize gingerbread houses, leaving many with the belief that gingerbread houses started with the Grimms's version of the tale.

Given its link with the gruesome fairytale, which involves two children almost getting cooked and eaten by a witch who lives in a gingerbread house before they turn the tables and cook her, it might seem surprising that the gingerbread house is still connected to Christmas. But today’s family-friendly holiday has numerous roots in the grimmer festivities of earlier times.

“Early German settlers brought this lebkuchenhaeusle–gingerbread house–tradition to the Americas,” writes Barbara Rolek for The Spruce. Today, gingerbread house-building competitions are an annual holiday tradition both nationally and in different parts of the country, and landmarks like the Washington Monument have been recreated using the spicy dough.

The gingerbread house-building contests in the United States today do bear some resemblance to the “gingerbread fairs” that were hosted by some cities in England and France during the Middle Ages and later, writes Amanda Fiegl for Smithsonian.com. Although the origin of these fairs was simply that gingerbread was a tasty and ubiquitous medieval treat, it did offer an opportunity to get together and enjoy a delicious treat–and what could be more Christmassy than that?

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