The History Of The Gingerbread Man

Santa Claus may be the big guy on campus when December rolls around, but there is another holiday icon who steals my heart year after year. Nothing screams Christmas like the confectionery genius that is a gingerbread man (or woman). However, according to the Public Broadcasting Service, their roots do not date back to the holidays -- or even as a dessert. 

In fact, people of ancient China were the first known cultivators of ginger, and it was primarily used for medical purposes. The spice made a culinary breakthrough during the Middle Ages, “for its ability to disguise the taste of preserved meats,” and according to McCormick Science Institute, it would cost two sheep to purchase.  

The first record of actual gingerbread dates to the ancient Greeks, but it was the Europeans who began decorating the cookie. It is even mentioned in one of Shakespeare’s plays,  Love’s Labour’s Lost, in which he writes, “An I had but one penny in the world, thou shouldst have it to buy gingerbread.” Queen Elizabeth I was a great fan of the treat and often had her “royal gingerbread maker” bake batches of goodies molded to the shape of foreign dignitaries and other individuals among her court. The treat, typically a mixture of ginger, molasses and other spices, also served as a matchmaker during this time period. According to Time Magazine, “gingerbread men were dished out by folk-medicine practitioners, often described as witches or magicians, who would create them as love tokens for young women.” Apparently, all one needed to do was slip their love interest a gingerbread cookie and a sweet romance would result. 

As for the holiday tradition of baking and decorating gingerbread cookies, most believe the custom can be traced back to Germany, the home of the gingerbread house. “Their popularity rose when the Brothers Grimm wrote the story of Hansel and Gretel, in which the main characters stumble upon a house made entirely of treats deep in the forest,” according to PBS

The gingerbread man known today developed from years of experimentation and tradition. It seems fitting they represent the holiday season as it too is rich with history and customs.