Skip to Content

The History of Gingerbread – Cookies, Houses, and Everything in Between

The history of gingerbread spans many centuries and continents. Read on to learn about the evolution of this traditional Christmas treat.

Did you know that the second Saturday in December is a food day set aside each year as National Gingerbread Decorating Day?

It is one of many gingerbread themed national days that we honor each year. Learn more about national days by reading our national days guide.

 If you’ve ever wondered where gingerbread men came from, why we make gingerbread houses, and why gingerbread is a symbol of Christmas, you’ve come to the right place. Let’s dive into the rich history of this tasty treat.

Five Christmas themed gingerbread cookies with a text overlay reading "The History of Gingerbread".

This post may contain affiliate links. I earn a small commission, at no extra cost to you if you purchase through an affiliate link.

The origin of gingerbread

The word “gingerbread” comes from the Latin word zingiber (that comes from the old French word gingebras) which refers to preserved ginger. 

Before we begin talking about gingerbread, we must first talk about ginger, the spice. It originated in Maritime Southeast Asia, and was one of the first spices exported from Asia through the spice trade.

Throughout the years, ginger was thought to have medicinal properties and qualities. Even today, we use ginger to treat certain kinds of ailments (for example, drinking ginger ale when you feel sick). 

A counter with gingerbread cookies and icing supplies and two sets of hands decorating the cookies.

Ancient Greek and Egyptian civilizations made a version of gingerbread, however what we consider gingerbread now wasn’t introduced until 992 CE.

An Armenian monk, named Gregory of Nicopolis brought this gingerbread to Europe in 992 CE.

Since that time, gingerbread has gone through many changes, and is available in many different varieties. Gingerbread can be anything from a moist cake to a hard ginger biscuit.

We love to make gingerbread cookies for the holiday season but do you know the history behind our love of this tasty treat? Head to Always the Holidays to find out more. #gingerbread #holidayfood 👨‍🍳🍜 Share on X

The history of gingerbread men

In the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth I (who reigned from 1533 to 1603) gave gifts of gingerbread men to her guests, suitors and visiting dignitaries.

Though she did not invent gingerbread, her new idea to make gingerbread men was the first of its kind.

A gingerbread man cookie standing and waving.

She had gingerbread cut into the shape of gingerbread men and decorated to resemble her guests. Having these gingerbread men, made in her visitors likenesses, wowed them!

This new gingerbread man cookie gained popularity in England after Queen Elizabeth I’s twist on the dessert.

Women in England began to have gingerbread men made and decorated to resemble the husbands they one day hoped to have.

Though superstitious, it was thought that if a single woman ate one of these gingerbread husbands, it would aid her in finding a real husband.

If you’d like to learn more about Queen Elizabeth’s influence on another holiday food, check out our post on the history of hot cross buns.

Hot cross buns are a traditional Easter bread which, like gingerbread, is surrounded by stories of a superstitious nature. Additionally, hot cross buns have their own national day, just like gingerbread!

The history of gingerbread houses

In the 16th century, in Germany, gingerbread houses were created. These houses had gingerbread walls and were with decorated foil and gold leaf.

A simply decorated gingerbread house on a wooden table against a Christmas tree backdrop.

When the Grimm’s fairy tale Hansel and Gretel was written in 1812, the popularity of gingerbread houses rose. 

In the story, two children that are lost in the woods that find a house made entirely of candy. If you haven’t read it, I won’t spoil the story but instead suggest you read it here yourself.

Gingerbread houses are now decorated with much more than gold leaf and foil, you can use any candy available to make a spectacular gingerbread house. Many use a special kind of royal icing to attach the parts together.

The Guinness Book of World Records asserts that Texas holds the record for the biggest gingerbread house coming in at 1,110.1 m³ (39,201.8 ft³).

When this gingerbread house was built, its aim was to raise money for a hospital trauma wing by charging a fee for guests to visit the gingerbread house. It was so popular that it raised over $150,000 for the hospital wing!

Gingerbread capital of the world

In addition to being the birthplace of gingerbread houses, Germany is also a hub of gingerbread activity. During Christmastime, there are street markets all around Germany.

A photo of Nuremberg, Germany, the gingerbread capital of the world.

Nuremberg was even named the gingerbread capital of the world in the 1600s!

In Germany there are two versions of gingerbread, also known as lebkuchen. One version is a soft cookie, and the other is a harder cookie. 

The harder lebkuchen is usually made in a heart shape and inscribed with love message written in icing. They are sold at street markets around Christmas in many towns in Germany, and have become a token of love to give to a partner.

The Nuremberg Lebkuchen

Since July of 1996, lebkuchen that come from Nuremberg (called “Nuremberg Lebkuchen”) have protected geographical indication from the European Union.

Gingerbread cookies with love messages hanging in a booth at a Christmas Market in Germany.

That means that in order for lebkuchen to be called “Nuremberg Lebkuchen“, they have to come from the region of Nuremberg and meet a certain set of standards.

It’s the same philosophy as the sparkling wine called Champagne.

Sparkling wine can be made anywhere. However, the only ones allowed to be called Champagne come from the Champagne region in France, and meet a certain set of quality standards.

To learn more about various types of wine, make sure to visit our wine temperatures guide which has handy information for serving and storing red and white wine.

Why is gingerbread associated with Christmas

In the 17th century, gingerbread was often shaped into the image of religious icons, and was therefore considered a sacred practice. 

A Christmas gingerbread display with gingerbread trees, stars, a moon and a gingerbread house.

Throughout the year, only specially trained gingerbread bakers that were members of a bakers guild were allowed to create gingerbread.

During Christmas and Easter, this guild requirement was lifted, and anyone was able to bake gingerbread. However, at all other times in the year, only those who belonged to the bakers guild could continue to bake gingerbread.

In current times, gingerbread is not treated as a sacred, religious practice, and can be baked by anyone at any time. While gingerbread can be baked year round now, it is still primarily seen as a symbol of the Christmas holiday.

Today, many homes assemble gingerbread houses, bake cookies made out of gingerbread, and some even adorn their Christmas trees with gingerbread garland!

You can even visit Christmas themed shops and purchase specially made gingerbread cookies to share with loved ones over the holidays.

Interesting gingerbread facts

Now that you know a little more about gingerbread, let’s dive in to some fun facts about gingerbread!

A woman holding up a gingerbread cookie in front of her face at a Christmas market.

  • There are three national days that celebrate gingerbread: National Gingerbread Day, National Gingerbread Cookie Day, and National Gingerbread House Day.
  • The gingerbread house that holds the Guinness Book of World Records title for largest gingerbread house was 21 feet high, covered 2,520 square feet, and contained 35.8 million calories!
  • in 1784, George Washington’s mother, Mary Ball Washington had her own special recipe for gingerbread.
  • According to Swedish tradition, you can make a wish on gingerbread wishing cookies. All you have to do is make a wish, put the cookie in the palm of your left hand and press on the center with your right thumb. If the cookie breaks into three pieces and you eat them all without speaking, you wish will come true!
  • In the 1600s, Nuremberg, Germany was named the gingerbread capital of the world, and it still remains that today!

More historical trivia posts

Are you a fan learning the history behind other foods, inventions and trends? If you are, be sure to also check out these posts to learn more! 

Christmas themed gingerbread cookies arranged on a flat countertop (gingerbread men, Christmas trees and snowflakes).

Pin this post about the history of gingerbread for later

Would you like a reminder of this post about the history of gingerbread? Just pin this image to one of your trivia boards on Pinterest so that you can easily find it later.

A gingerbread house dressed with Christmas decorations and a text overlay reading "The History of Gingerbread".

Jess author photoAbout the author

Since graduating from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Jess has been living and working in Los Angeles, CA. She is a freelance writer, specializing in content related to fashion, food and drink and film industry topics. Find out more about Jess here.

FACT CHECK: Our editorial staff aims to be accurate and fair in all posts. If you see something that doesn’t appear correct, please click here to contact us. Always the Holidays reviews and updates its content regularly to ensure it is complete and accurate.

Share on Social Media

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are "affiliate links." This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive a small commission from the sale, but the price is the same for you. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."