Oh, the sweet smell of Christmas! As it stimulates the sensory buttons, it also expands the visible waistline, but who cares, right? It’s the holidays, and it’s time to bake the best foods of the season – cookies (defined as small cakes)! So, just how did this 10,000-year-old medieval holiday phenomena get started? After all, Christmas celebrations always revolve around food. Let us feast now on the gingerbread cookie before the famine of the dreaded post-holiday diet begins in January.
Enjoy this happy song, “Christmas Cookies” sung by George Strait:
Gingerbread was brought to Europe in 992 by an American monk and baked in the Scandinavian countries. Wooden molds were created for the dough in the image of saints and other religious characters. As a result, gingerbread served a religious purpose through the 17th century when it became a part of Christmas. This classic treat made of ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, and molasses still tastes strikingly similar to the Middle-Aged recipes. They were expensive to make and considered a delicacy, so only the wealthy could afford to give this delicious food away as gifts of good cheer. However, I will bet those cookies were not in the shape of men! Who came up with this idea?
The first person to try gingerbread men was none other than Queen Elizabeth I of England in the 16th century. She hired a royal gingerbread maker who designed the shape of foreign dignitaries for a dinner party. It was part of a scheme – say clever diplomacy, because Britain stood opposite Catholic France and Spain in a religious war. What better way to attract good tidings than to bake a caricature in their honor?
During the time of the Queen’s reign, gingerbread men were also fed to folk-medicine practitioners. They created the cookies as love tokens for young women who ate them with the hope a man would fall in love with her. I wonder how many dozens of cookies a woman ate to carry out the act of marriage? Nuremberg, Germany later picked up on the romance of gingerbread and created heart-shaped cookies with romantic messages. They now hold the oldest gingerbread recipe, dating to the 16th century, in the Germanic National Museum.
Some countries also believe the little men made of ginger root has a religious undertone. Since men are more toddler-shaped than adult stature, they represent the baby Jesus at Christmas. The spices used to make the cookie represent the exotic gifts of the Magi.
As gingerbread entered America, many recipes expanded into different kinds of desserts. George Washington’s mother, Mary Ball Washington, produced the first Gingerbread Cake in 1784. The recipe, shown below, will use every single bowl in your kitchen so prepare to spend a whole day baking and cleaning dishes. But for our readers who enjoy historical food, this will be so worth the effort!
Soon after Mary Washington’s release of her cake, gingerbread houses became a favorite pastime. These delightful little creations became particularly admired as Christmas decorations for the German population of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The witch’s candy cottage in the fairytale, Hansel and Gretel, inspired the design of these houses. Today, they are a work of art. It requires building a prototype of the house out of paper or wood first, then baking at those specifications. There is no better place to witness the ingenuity of these bakers than in Asheville, North Carolina at the National Gingerbread House Competition.
Yes, it smells like Christmas! Let us use the tasty treats and desserts this holiday to show hospitality to strangers and demonstrate fellowship to believers. It doesn’t have to be gingerbread but any kind of special treat. Give the gift of community and affection.
Happy baking and Merry Christmas!
Come back on Thursday, November 15th, for more “Everything Christmas Blogs”!
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