If there were a holy trinity of traditional Christmas treats, gingerbread cookies would surely be on that list, along with peppermint candy canes and eggnog. Look, gingerbread might not be your family's favorite type of cookie. Indeed, there's a reason why most kids leave out chocolate chip cookies for Santa. But we must admit that imagining festive decorations without gingerbread men and at least a small gingerbread house is getting harder and harder as the years go by.
But where did the tradition come from? Did we collectively decide that this one cookie would be our Christmas tradition for a specific reason? Was there an all-out brawl at some point in honor of other traditional Christmas cookies like snickerdoodles and sugar cookies, with the gingerbread faction winning? Or is there some other reason why it's gingerbread houses we're decorating and gingerbread men we're hanging up on our Christmas trees and not, say, sugar cookie ones?
Well, apparently, it's a bit of a "which came first: the chicken or the egg" situation. Not only are there multiple theories about how gingerbread became associated with Christmas, but there are multiple countries that seem to have started the tradition on their own (not that it's ever that clear cut, especially in Europe).
Buckle up. We're going to double down and do our best to figure it out.
Where Did Gingerbread Cookies Come From?
The origin of gingerbread is convoluted, mainly because no one can figure out just how old it is. It's known that ginger was first cultivated in China around five millennia ago, but the Chinese mainly used it for medical properties. Some historians claim that the Greeks were the first to use it as a flavoring ingredient in a sweet treat some 500 years later, but the sources are a tad shoddy.
In Europe, the Armenian monk Gregory of Nicopolis is considered the "father" of gingerbread cookies. It's unclear where he got the recipe or if he indeed invented it, but the story goes he came to live in France in 992 and, for the next seven years, until his death, taught the French Christians how to bake the cookie. A less apocryphal theory claims it came from the eastern Mediterranean a little later, in the 11th century.
The oldest known gingerbread cookie variety is, apparently, Polish. It's called Toruń gingerbread, and it's been in production since the 13th century. It supposedly inspired the German Lebkuchen and Swedish Pepparkakor (despite the two being quite different), as German immigrants bringing it to Sweden was the first claim of international fame the gingerbread got and took off from there.
Interestingly, the name itself, gingerbread, comes from England! It was initially used for preserved ginger and had nothing to do with cookies (or any other dessert, for that matter, as it was primarily used as a spice for preserved meats). The usage seems to have shifted around the mid-15th century when ginger-flavored spiced cookies became more widely available.
But How Did Gingerbread Cookies Became Traditional at Christmas?
While the map of gingerbread cookies spreading across Europe (and from there to the rest of the world) seems to be more or less clear (France -> Poland -> Germany -> Sweden -> Everyone Else), how it turned into the signature Christmas cookie is more of a murky story.
Theory #1: It Has to Do with Gingerbread Houses
Many theorists believe that gingerbread houses being used as Christmas decorations is what gave way to Christmas gingerbread cookies becoming a staple of the season.
What they can't agree on is when the tradition of making gingerbread houses for Christmas started.
Did it start in the 16th century, inspired the Brothers Grimm, and get popularized from there? Or was it the story itself that encouraged people to begin making elaborately decorated houses out of cookies as Christmas decorations?
Both these theories believe that gingerbread houses' popularity is owed mainly to the Brothers Grimm's famous story Hansel & Gretel. There just seems to be no consensus yet, whether the houses were already a tradition before the Brothers Grimm published their story in 1812 or if the gingerbread house mania started after the image of the Witch's cottage "built of gingerbread, cookies, cakes, and candy" burned itself into the German people's minds.
Complicating the matter is that Hansel & Gretel is a folktale that existed long before the Brothers Grimm heard it (in 1809) and then published it. According to German folklorist Jack Zipes, it could've emerged as early as the second half of the 13th century. So the people who'd heard the tale before might have very well gotten the inspiration to make gingerbread cookie houses.
Hence the whole "the chicken and the egg" situation.
I, myself, am more inclined to believe in the first theory; that the gingerbread houses were already around when the Brothers Grimm published Hansel & Gretel and that the story's popularity just gave the tradition a massive boost.
After all, why Christmas? It seems to me that there must've been at least some kind of association between gingerbread houses and winter holidays by that point for the habit of using them as a Christmas decoration to take off so rapidly.
The shoddy timeline makes it hard to determine if gingerbread houses are indeed the reason gingerbread became associated with winter holidays. We know gingerbread cookies became a Christmas thing sometime in the 17th century. If gingerbread houses were already a thing in the 16th century, it makes sense that the laborious task of baking and decorating a proper gingerbread house likely required a lot of time and a lot of hands. As in, it was a thing for a family to do when most of them had some free time, i.e., during the holidays.
But if the elaborate decoration part of it only became a thing after the Brothers Grimm published their story, then gingerbread was already associated with Christmas by the time the Germans (and everyone else) started building gingerbread houses.
Theory #2: It has to Do with Christmas Markets
The second theory sounds less romantic (an affair for an entire family based on a beloved local folktale!) and more pragmatic (capitalism!). Obviously, now I suspect the latter version to be more plausible, even if I'm mildly bothered by the prospect of sounding like a local Grinch.
Christmas markets, or, more specifically, December markets, have a longer tradition than a lot of us seem to realize. Indeed, when I was doing research for this article, I didn't think that "they've been around since the middle ages" meant they'd been around since the 13th century at least. The oldest record of a December market was found in Vienna, dated by the year 1298. It's believed that the tradition started gaining foot many a year earlier.
The December markets, and later proper Christmas markets or Christkindlmarkt, quickly became a staple of the winter holidays, first in the German-speaking world and then across the rest of Europe. By the way, the first real Christmas market is considered to be Dresden's Striezelmarkt. It was first held in 1434 and is still held today!
So what do gingerbread cookies have to do with Christmas markets?
Again, it's not really clear when the tradition started. But during the Medieval times, gingerbread cookies shaped like different subjects (mainly animals or people) were a staple snack at fairs, particularly in Germany, England, France, and Holland. These cookies became so famous over time that some of these festivals came to be known as Gingerbread Fairs. The cookies started becoming more elaborate, taking more complex shapes that changed with the seasons, and often lavishly decorated with golden leaves. According to one theory, these "festival fairings" were also what inspired the gingerbread houses!
It makes sense that sometime down the line, an entrepreneurial baker set up a stall during the Christmas market to cash in, and slowly the cookies became the season's staple. After all, there are almost four hundred years between the inception of December markets and Christmas gingerbread cookies becoming a thing. If you see something around for a long time during specific periods, it doesn't take long to start associating the thing with that specific period.
Frankly, I don't think we'll ever know the whole truth behind why we eat gingerbread cookies during winter holidays, but it is fun to speculate. After all, it's not like incorrect theories are going to make the cookies disappear. If anything, one thing they've proven over the centuries is that Christmas is unlikely to happen without them anytime soon.
Different Types of Christmas Gingerbread Cookies:
Another interesting thing is that while in many countries, gingerbread cookies are among the most oft-consumed winter holiday treats, most of them are vastly different from one another:
Gingersnaps or ginger nuts are the cookies of choice in England. They're brittle and crunchy cookies flavored with powdered ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove. Ginger nuts are often made with molasses instead of sugar (akin to American gingerbread), but bakers aim for a brittle texture. The Gingerbread man is one of England's most frequently used Christmas decorations. Its creation is attributed to Queen Elizabeth !, who is thought to have served the gingerbread figurines to visiting dignitaries.
Lebkuchen, the German gingerbread, is likely to be the oldest Christmas gingerbread cookie. It can be both soft and hard, with the latter version traditional to street markets, including the Christmas markets. Lebkuchen is flavored with honey and often generously spiced with a wide variety of spices, including classic cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove, but also aniseed, coriander, cardamom, various nuts, and candied fruits.
Swedish Pepperkakor and its varieties are a typical Christmas treat in Nordic and Baltic countries, consumed throughout December. Pepperkakor and its varieties tend to be thin, brittle, and crunchy. However, the Swedish and Norwegian varieties are a little thicker than Danish, Finnish, Latvian, etc., because they're often used as window decorations.
Pernik is the name of a Czech gingerbread cookie. It shares many similarities with English gingersnaps and is often shaped into various figurines like stars, animals, and, yes, gingerbread houses during the holiday season.
Lekach is the traditional Ashkenazi Jewish cake prepared for Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year). While it's more of a bundt cake instead of a cookie, it shares certain similarities with other Christmas gingerbread treats, mainly German lebkuchen. It's honey-sweetened and very heavily spiced.
Check out Yummy Bazaar's Gingerbread Assortment for More:
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