December’s object will be a homemade gingerbread house. Thoughts of gingerbread houses conjure ideas of Christmas, with white icing creating snow, the scent of ginger, molasses (depending on your recipe) and spice warming the air; a family working together to decorate the gingerbread house with gum drops and candy canes, with more gum drops ending up in children’s mouths than on the gingerbread house itself. The magical and whimsical appearance of a miniature house made of sweets in the bustle of the twenty first century conjures ideas of family traditions and taking time to spend with family and friends. This edition of Fig. 0 will place the homemade gingerbread house in conversation with ideas about tradition, commercialisation, manufacture and luxury that surround gingerbread houses.
The tradition of making gingerbread houses is a relatively recent one. Like many traditions currently associated with Christmas, most stem from the nineteenth century. Historian Judith Flanders discusses the commercialisation of Christmas in creating these traditions in nineteenth century England, pointing out that Christmas before 1840s was about ‘family, mistletoe and holly, church-going and charity, and about food.’ This idea of a commercial Christmas ties in with the creation of gingerbread houses themselves, which straddle the line between food and decoration. Anyone who has tried a bit of gingerbread house after it has been on display for a while can attest to the fact that the gingerbread does not improve over several weeks. This brings into question the intent of early gingerbread houses: was it a decorative edible, or a decoration that was made of edible elements?
The tradition of gingerbread houses is often associated with the Brothers Grimm’s tale of Hansel and Gretel. The first English translation of the Grimm’s tales was published in 1823. However, the version of Hansel and Gretel that includes the edible witch’s house does not appear in England until later translations. Household Stories, published in 1853, tells the story of Hansel and ‘Grethel’ in which they find the witch’s cottage ‘made of bread and cakes, and the window panes… of clear sugar.’ What is lacking from this analysis is how this idea of a house made of cake became part of Christmas traditions. The answer may lie in Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera Hänsel und Gretel, which was first perfomed on December 23rd 1893 and is still most often performed at Christmas time.
Going further back into the history of gingerbread itself, it can be found that the term gingerbread originally referred to ‘preserved ginger’; however by the fifteenth century it began to refer to a sweet cake that was made with ginger. One of the earliest known recipes for gingerbread in England came from the fifteenth century cookbook Good Cookery and was made by combining bread crumbs and spices into a paste, shaping them in a mould and then letting them dry in an oven. Gingerbread-making became a professional occupation in England, France, and Germany, and by the seventeenth century only professional bakers were allowed to make Gingerbread. These rules were relaxed at Christmas and Easter allowing for it to be baked by anyone. This exception to the rules helps to establish a link between gingerbread baking at home and Christmas as it would have been one of the few opportunities to make the gingerbread at home. Families today no longer have to deal with restrictions from the law, however modern restrictions seem to be of time. At Ikea, perhaps unsurprisingly, you can purchase a flat packed gingerbread house with only assembly required. In the United States they are often made by cementing Graham Crackers to cardboard milk cartons with frosting. The emphasis has become on the decorating of the house.
For those who do not want the bother of having to decorate their own gingerbread house this year, The Very First To, a luxury product website, claims to have created the most ‘precious’ gingerbread house ever. One hundred and fifty South Sea Pearls and a five carat Ruby will make up a significant portion of the house’s £49,750 price tag. The rest of the house’s cost is justified by the use of high quality ingredients and the fact that the house will be made by Cordon Bleu Pâtisserie Chef Georgia Green. The idea of luxury and gingerbread is not a new one. Gingerbread was a food eaten by royalty, with Queen Elizabeth I having gingerbread shaped to represent people within her court. Gingerbread was often gilded with gold leaf, and gilded gingerbread became an expression of something ‘showy or tawdry’ in the seventeenth century. It was not just the design and gilding that made gingerbread a luxury item. The spices themselves were a costly luxury when gingerbread first became popular in the eleventh century in Europe. While The Very First To’s claim to have created the most precious gingerbread house ever, historically gingerbread is accustom to the luxury setting in which it now finds itself. With the home-made gingerbread house, the luxury of time that goes into the making and decorating, especially if that time is shared with friends and family, can be considered more valuable for the memories that it creates.
Gingerbread houses with all of their Christmas connotations are a relative newcomer to the realm of Christmas traditions in England. They appear to have a longer history in Germany: Nuremberg has been making lebkuchen (a form of gingerbread) for over six hundred years. Many Scandinavian countries also have traditions of gingerbread house building. Bergen, Norway boast the world’s largest gingerbread city, created by groups, schools, and individuals in the community. Whether they are made at home from a kit or custom baked by a chef, gingerbread houses embody aspects of the Christmas season: luxury, commercialization and, of course, tradition.
 ‘Victorian Christmas’, The British Library <http://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/victorian-christmas> [accessed 16 December 2014]
 Wilhelm Grimm, German Popular Stories / Grimm and Edited by Edgar Taylor. (Sl: Chatto and Windus, nd) p. 188-195.
 Grimm, Jacob Ludwig C., Household Stories Collected by the Brothers Grimm, Tr., with Illustr. by E.H. Wehnert, 1853, p. 73.
 ‘Hänsel Und Gretel’, Royal Opera House <http://www.roh.org.uk/productions/hansel-und-gretel-by-patrice-caurier-and-moshe-leiser> [accessed 16 December 2014]
 Stellingwerf, Steven, Gingerbread Book p. 8.
 Slack, Margaret, Gingerbread, New edition edition (Todmorden: Packhorse Press, 2002) p. 9, An A-Z of Food & Drink, John Ayto [Oxford University Press: Oxford] 2002, p. 142.
 ‘Traditional Christmas Foods’ <http://www.webcitation.org/6LlBX4Jzo> [accessed 16 December 2014]
 ‘PEPPARKAKA HUS Gingerbread House – IKEA’, IKEA GB/EN <http://www.ikea.com/gb/en/catalog/products/90218783/> [accessed 16 December 2014]
 ‘Seven Ways to Build a Gingerbread House’, TinkerLab <http://tinkerlab.com/seven-ways-to-make-a-gingerbread-house/> [accessed 16 December 2014]
 ‘The Most Precious Christmas Gingerbread House Ever — VeryFirstTo’ <http://veryfirstto.com/never-done-before/the-most-precious-christmas-gingerbread-house-ever/> [accessed 16 December 2014]
 ‘Meet Our Alumni’, Cordon Bleu <http://www.cordonbleu.edu/london/alumni/en> [accessed 16 December 2014]
 Stellingwerf, Steven, Gingerbread Book (New York: Rizzoli Intl Pubns, 1991) p. 9
 ‘Gingerbread’, Oxford English Dictionary<http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/78377?rskey=bN0nCU&result=1#eid> [accessed 16 December 2014]
 Stellingwerf, Steven, Gingerbread Book p. 8
 Stellingwerf, Steven, Gingerbread Book, p. 10.
 Slack, Margaret, Gingerbread, p. 13-14.
 ‘December 2014: World’s Largest Gingerbread City’, Bergen Guide Norway<http://www.bergen-guide.com/973.htm> [accessed 16 December 2014]
Additional reading and recipes:
Barrett, Valerie, The Complete Book of Gingerbread, First edition (Secaucus, N.J.: Book Sales, 1992)