If you visit George Washington’s Ferry Farm this December, you’ll be greeted by the sweet smell of spiced gingerbread as soon as you walk through the door! During our annual Gingerbread House Contest and Exhibit, our gallery space is transformed into a showroom with entries reflecting this year’s theme: “architectural wonders of the world.” Unlike their real-life counterparts, these architectural wonders are all baked out of gingerbread and creatively decorated with icing and candies. Baking gingerbread is a great way to get in the holiday spirit, and in many cultures, gingerbread has long been associated with the holiday season. But where, exactly, did these gingerbread traditions originate?
According to The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, the term “gingerbread” refers to a wide variety of baked goods ranging from rolled cookies to dense cakes that are “flavored with a combination of spices such as ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg, and sweetened with honey, sugar, or molasses.” Some gingerbread variations can be traced back to antiquity, like the honey-sweetened cakes baked in ancient Egypt and Greece. Variations closer to what we consider gingerbread today (think gingerbread men and gingerbread loaves) became popular in northern Europe during the Middle Ages. Germany, in particular, became well known for its spiced gingerbreads, or lebkuchen.
German lebkuchen can trace its origins as far back as the 14th century, when gingerbread baking was associated with local monasteries and, later, professional bakers’ guilds. In Nuremberg, now world famous for its lebkuchen, honey was a locally accessible sweetener due to the city’s abundant forests and honeybee population. The medieval city was also at the crossroads of trade, which meant imported spices were readily available to Nuremberg monks and bakers. Before the invention of metal molds and cookie cutters, bakers used wooden molds carved with elaborate patterns to make and decorate gingerbread. Bakers shaped the cookies into different figures like animals and saints, and when intended as gifts for nobility, even added gilded decoration!
Today, although recipes vary, lebkuchen ingredients often incorporate some variation of honey, nuts, coriander, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, and candied fruit. “Nuremberg lebkuchen” has a higher nut content than any other variety. “Lebkuchenherzen” (or “Lebkuchen hearts”) are heart-shaped gingerbread decorated with written icing inscriptions. The hearts can be hung as decoration and are often sold at Christmas markets and during Oktoberfest.
By the 1800s, making gingerbread houses was a popular activity in Germany. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a tale involving a candy-coated house also began to circulate during this time. Originally published in 1812 by the brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Hansel and Gretel tells the story of two children lost in the woods who stumble upon a witch’s house made of bread, cakes, and sugar. The evil witch captures the children when she discovers them munching on her house!
The story of Hansel and Gretel has remained popular to this day, and many different iterations of the tale exist. It’s unclear exactly which event precipitated the other (did the fairytale popularize gingerbread houses, or was an existing gingerbread house tradition simply incorporated into the story?) What is clear, however, is that gingerbread houses had become popular in Germany! When Germans immigrated to new places, they took these traditions with them, and the baking and making of gingerbread houses became popular elsewhere too. Today, whether created from a store-bought kit or handmade dough, gingerbread house-making is a popular activity for adults and children alike and is closely tied to the Christmas season.
Beginning in 1991, the city of Bergen, Norway, constructed an entire city…out of gingerbread! The display is made up of more than 2000 gingerbread houses and buildings. Called pepper cookies or “pepperkaker” in Norwegian, the “Pepperkakebyen” Gingerbread Town is made up of pieces constructed by local school children, businesses, and volunteers. The city landscape includes local landmarks, trains, cars, and even boats. While not the only gingerbread town in existence, it is certainly one of the largest and is a testament to the enduring popularity of the gingerbread house!
If you’re interested in delving further into the history of gingerbread, check out two of our past Lives & Legacies blog posts where we’ve written about Mary Washington serving gingerbread to Lafayette and the Kenmore Association’s ties to the sweet treat. If you’re interested in seeing Ferry Farm’s own Gingerbread House Contest and Exhibit, be sure to stop in before the exhibit closes on December 30th and also vote on your favorite entry!
Further Reading: The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets. (2015). United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.
Manager of Interpretation & Visitor Services