Fancy gingerbread men, elaborate gingerbread houses, and the wafting scent of spices are all a part of Christmastime festivities, but how did the treats we enjoy each December become a Christmas favorite?
Ginger was first cultivated in China, for medicinal use. It wasn’t used for gingerbread in the region until the 10th century. But by the Middle Ages, Europeans had developed their own version of gingerbread—somehow. Ginger’s use had spread thanks to trade, which allowed early varieties of gingerbread to be enjoyed amongst ancient civilizations like the Greeks and Egyptians. As to how ginger made that final stretch, gingerbread is claimed to have been brought to Europe in the 10th century by a Greek monk who moved to France, though it may have been brought by returning 11th-century Crusaders from the Middle East.
The creation of gingerbread men is credited to England’s Queen Elizabeth in the 16th century, who would present dignitaries and noblemen with gingerbread men baked in their own likeness. At the same time, like many popular Christmas traditions, gingerbread houses appeared in Germany, though they weren’t popularized until the Grimm’s Fairy Tales version of “Hansel and Gretel” appeared centuries later.
Gingerbread became a special, long-lasting treat. Often decorated with icing or gold leaf, gingerbread was given as party favors or presents, used as protection against evil, or offered to a sweetheart. Gingerbread was popular at fairs, becoming known as “fairings” for a time. As the supply of spices like ginger grew and became more affordable, gingerbread grew in prominence, becoming widely available by the 18th century.
Gingerbread’s connection to Christmas came slowly. Gingerbread arrived in America with European settlers. Molasses replaced the more expensive sugar often used in the recipe, producing a softer, cake-like cookie than the version popular in Europe. During the winter months, colonials enjoyed ginger snap cookies dipped in wine. A comforting way to stay warm, their popularity in the colder months led to ginger cookies becoming common Christmas tree decorations. Their role continued to evolve, and the ginger cookies moved from the tree to the family cookie competitions we know today, though we now enjoy the cookies afterward with milk.
Gingerbread is a warm treat, and decorating your homemade cookies with the entire family has made it a Christmas must-have. If you want to enjoy holiday spices in your morning pick-me-up, try this easy Gingerbread Latte that uses a homemade gingerbread syrup to add to an ice cream treat, milk, and more. However you enjoy this Christmas treat, make sure to enjoy it with real milk!