You’re sitting with your kids with a cup of eggnog in the kitchen, watching them try to build a gingerbread house.
One of them comes up to you and asks, “Why do we eat gingerbread cookies only on Christmas?”
Now, you’ll probably respond with something along the lines of, “It’s Christmas tradition.”
Nevertheless, you could be thinking to yourself, “Whydowe eat these cookies on Christmas?” Well, possible reasons go all the way back to the 13th century during Medieval times.
While there’s no specific historical event that correlates gingerbread cookies to Christmas, the past does inform us about some connections.
Stick around to learn more about why we eat gingerbread cookies during Christmas.
Gingerbread, in the general sense, is rich in history. So much so, that it goes back to thousands of years ago, during times of Ancient Egypt, China, and Greece.
The old confectionery was primarily used for medicinal and religious ceremonies.
After passing through generations of diverse cultures, it reached Europe in 992 through an Armenian monk called Gregory of Nicopolis.
The religious figure is also referred to as the father of gingerbread cookies. Gregory went to France and taught French Christians how to make these cookies.
Soon after, gingerbread cookies spread across the continent and brought various versions, such as the German Lebkuchen or the Swedish Pepparkakor.
The oldest variety is believed to be of Polish descent, dating back to the 13th century. The cookies were called Torun gingerbread.
The famed cookie also gained popularity in Russia, where people would create gingerbread men and women to replicate their guests.
Similarly, Queen Elizabeth I’s court also served figure-shaped gingerbread cookies that resemble guests.
Gingerbread cookies became a common treat, sold in monasteries, pharmacies, and farmers’ markets in town squares.
You’re probably wondering when they decided to make houses out of the cookies. Well, that’s where the Grimm Brothers come in.
Their widely-told tale of Hansel and Gretel, published in 1812, inspired multiple bakers. The original version of the fairytale describes the house as made of bread and cake.
Pastry chefs decided to build the notorious witch’s house using gingerbread cookies. Eventually, people joined in the fun and started creating gingerbread houses of their own.
German cookies were relatively harder than other variations, making building the house easier. The adorable houses were decorated with colorful gumdrops and lined with icing.
There are no solid leads on how gingerbread cookies became associated with Christmas. To complicate matters, some believe that gingerbread houses were the reason why the cookies became a Christmas staple.
Nonetheless, here are some interesting theories worth considering:
The trend of decorating Christmas trees with gingerbread cookies might be the root of the association.
To get to the bottom of this reasoning, we’ll have to go back a couple of centuries when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert ruled the United Kingdom in the mid-1800s.
During that time, Prince Albert popularized the German-origin tradition of having Christmas trees in England.
Commoners weren’t able to extravagantly decorate their Christmas trees like the monarchs, so they used gingerbread cookies instead.
Some believe that the fairytale Hansel and Gretel gave rise to the link between gingerbread cookies and Christmas.
The only issue with this theory is that historians are not sure which came first.
For all we know, gingerbread cookies might’ve been already a thing before the release of the popular Children’s story.
In addition, Hansel and Gretel was inspired by an old folktale in the late 13th century.
People who previously heard the folktale may have been inspired and created the gingerbread house way before the Brothers Grimm published their own version.
December markets are one of the most plausible reasons gingerbread cookies are synonymous with Christmas. These markets have a rich history, going back to the late 1200s in Vienna.
Nonetheless, the event wasn’t connected to Christmas since it wasn’t religious. It was held for two weeks in December.
The market slowly evolved and spread to other European countries. By 1434, the first Christmas market was held pertaining to the holidays.
So, how do gingerbread cookies come into the picture? These delicacies were widely sold in German, Dutch, French, and English fairs.
They were shaped like people and animals. As the market grew in popularity, so did the intricacies involved when decorating the cookies.
They were usually adorned with gold leaf and made into various ornamental shapes. The cookies became known as Gingerbread Fairs at one point.
That said, it’s not surprising that someone decided to sell these treats at the Christmas fair. Before long, these cookies garnered their holiday status.
Why do we eat gingerbread cookies during Christmas? In short, there’s no specific event that ties the two together.
Theories like the Brothers Grimm’s Hansel and Gretel, folktales, and Christmas Markets may give us a glimpse regarding the correlation, but that’s about it.
Luckily, we do know how gingerbread cookies came to be. Their popularity in Europe, thanks to the Armenian monk, eventually spread toward U.S. soil through immigrants.
Sarah is the founder of Baking Kneads, LLC, a blog sharing guides, tips, and recipes for those learning how to bake. Growing up as the daughter of a baker, she spent much of her childhood learning the basics in a local bakery.