Gingerbread Tradition

By Lorna Jean Hagstrom

If, as the song says, “Love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage,” the same can easily be said about Christmas and gingerbread. How did this happen? The story begins with the history of ginger.

The ginger root was first cultivated in ancient China and imported to Europe by the Romans when they began trading in the Far East. The Chinese recognized that ginger had medicinal qualities, knowledge that was passed on to the Europeans. It was used to settle ailments of the digestive tract and was even considered an aphrodisiac. By the 600’s A.D. those properties became a product of apothecaries. Made into a paste with the addition of honey and grated root vegetables, it was so desirable that the resulting cake mixture was formed into squares or loaves and sold by the slice.

By medieval times the mixture was pressed into molds that were carved into elaborate pictures and designs on a flat piece of wood and then baked. Soon the tradition of creating gingerbread men began when in 1487 Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III had 4000 gingerbread cakes of his image made to give to the children of his domain, hoping to increase his approval rating. Years later Queen Elizabeth I of England did something similar when she ordered her bakers to create a mold in the shape of people she favored so she could present the cakes to them as a compliment. The Middle Ages was also a time when Gingerbread Fairs were popular, particularly in England and France. Gingerbread contests were part of the festivities and included gingerbread houses and elaborate villages made from gingerbread cakes.

By the early 1600’s gingerbread moved from the apothecaries to the bakeries when German and French bakers added flour and eggs to the mixture and made cookies as we know them today. But it was the later introduction of industrial mass production that led to metal cookie cutters when a German baker discovered that by using tin-shaped molds, it would speed up production and therefore profits.

How did gingerbread come to be associated with Christmas? In the Fourth Century A.D. there was an effort to convert pagans to Christianity. Gingerbread was an important part of pagan religious ceremonies which took place in the month of December. Before this time, since the Christian Church had never set a date for the birth of Christ, the decision was made to set it at December 25th so pagan and Christmas celebrations could take place at the same time. The popular gingerbread then became a part of the Christmas celebrations as well.

In this country it was the early German settlers who brought with them many of our Christmas traditions. In addition to the Christmas tree, they also brought gingerbread houses and gingerbread cookies which today are a large part of American celebrations.

 - Internet photo

Wooden and early tin molds - Google Images

 - Internet photos

Wooden cookie molds whittled by a WVHS member.