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The History of Gingerbread


Life + Learning

  • A gingerbread house sits in front of a decorated Christmas tree

Jennifer, Clemens Mill | December 2, 2021

Long before it was shaped into men or made into candy-studded houses, gingerbread was the term used to describe “preserved ginger” which was simply ginger that has been dried and rolled—not the same gingerbread we know and love today.

Ginger was first discovered in Asia. The funny, gnarled root we see in the grocery store that has the ability to cure a stomachache was first cultivated in Ancient China and used primarily for its medicinal properties. Ginger was an early trade good between Southern Asia and Ancient Greece and Rome.

Recipes for gingerbread began in Ancient Greece, when ginger was added to the already existing honey cake, which was considered a symbolic religious food. 

Gingerbread may have found its way to Western Europe around the first Crusade (1095-1099). Or, it is often said that it was brought by Gregory Markar, AKA Saint Gregory of Nicopolis – who when arriving in France in the year 991, served visitors a cake made of ginger and spices using a recipe from his homeland of Armenia.

Late in the Medieval period, ginger became more affordable, and was no longer reserved for the elite classes. Gingerbread became a part of church events and festivals, and there were even fairs devoted to it. The bread was seen as lucky, and a sign of affection, often given to favourite knights at tournaments by maidens wanting to wish them luck.

The decorated gingerbread biscuit is often credited to Queen Elizabeth I (who reigned from 1558-1603). The Queen had some biscuits made to resemble visiting dignitaries to her court. This started a tradition of cookie decorating to go with the seasons, with flowers for Spring and birds in Fall.

The importance of gingerbread was documented by Shakespeare in Love’s Labour’s Lost, a play that was written in the mid 1590s, and performed for the Queen at Christmas,  “An I had but one penny in the world, thou shouldst have it to buy gingerbread."

Germany had a similar spiced cookie called “Lebkuchen” which became popular during the 13th and 14th centuries, especially at Christmastime.

Gingerbread houses originated in Germany in the 16th Century, and became associated with the Christmas season. Their popularity is often linked to the Brothers Grimm story Hansel and Gretel, wherein two children stumble upon a house in the forest that is completely made of sweets.

It is thought that gingerbread was introduced to America by German immigrants. Mary Washington (the mother of the first American President, George Washington) had a recipe for a gingerbread cake in 1784.

These days, gingerbread generally refers to one of two desserts. According to The New Food Lover’s Companion, “Gingerbread can be a dense, ginger-spiced cookie flavoured with molasses or honey and cut into fanciful shapes (such as the gingerbread man). Or, particularly in the United States, it can describe a dark, moist cake flavoured with molasses, ginger and other spices.”

The record for the world’s largest gingerbread house was recently broken when a house spanning 40,000 cubic feet was built in Bryan, Texas. It required a building permit and was made of 4000 gingerbread bricks!

This year at Idea Exchange, we are holding a Gingerbread House Contest! If you would like to try your hand at building your own gingerbread house, consider entering for a chance to win a prize!

Houses will be judged by overall appearance, originality and use of food design.

Please see our website for contest rules and to enter online.

Happy Building!

If you are looking for inspiration, or need a recipe for gingerbread, have a look at our booklists Everything Gingerbread, and Cookie and Candy Fun for Kids.