The History of Christmas Gingerbread
The earliest form of gingerbread can be traced to ceremonies performed by the ancient Greeks and Egyptians. It wasn't until the 11th century that this sweet treat was introduced to Europe by the crusaders when they returned from the Middle East. It was considered a "rich folk" luxury until ginger and other spices became more affordable for the common people. That's when the popularity of gingerbread began to grow.
During the 13th century, gingerbread was brought to Sweden by German immigrants. Early references from the Vadstena Abbey show how the Swedish nuns were baking gingerbread to ease indigestion in 1444.
An early European recipe consisted of ground almonds, stale breadcrumbs, rosewater, sugar and ginger. But in the 16th century, English cooks improved the original heavy batter by replacing breadcrumbs with flour and adding eggs and sweeteners.
The first gingerbread man is credited to Queen Elizabeth I. She presented visiting dignitaries with cookies fashioned in their own likeness. From its very beginning gingerbread has been a fairground delicacy. Many fairs became known as "gingerbread fairs". There is also more than one village tradition in England requiring unmarried women to eat gingerbread "husbands" at the fair if they are to stand a good chance of meeting a real husband.
Germany has the longest tradition of baking flat-shaped gingerbreads. At every autumn fair in Germany and in the surrounding Germanic lands, the booths are filled with hundreds of ribboned gingerbread hearts decorated with white and colored icing.
Gingerbread has changed dramatically since then. Now days, gingerbread makes its most impressive appearance at Christmas in the form of decorative and edible houses. This tradition is far and away the most popular in North America where its origins are rooted with the immigrant settlers who brought family recipes and customs with them from all over Northern Europe.
By the nineteenth century, America had been baking gingerbread for decades. American recipes utilized fewer spices based on regional availability. For this reason, New Englanders produced maple syrup gingerbreads and Southerners developed a recipe using sorghum molasses.
Regional variations began occurring as more people arrived from Europe. In Pennsylvania, the influence of German cooking was great and many traditional German gingerbreads reappeared, especially at Christmas time.
You'll find more gingerbread recipes in America than anywhere else in the world. With so many variations available, an imaginative baker can create amazing gingerbread houses and centerpieces...not to mention delicious cookies for the holidays.