Crafting gingerbread houses has been a custom of celebrating Christmas and the Yuletide for quite some time. Have you ever wondered where the tradition come from? When we think of gingerbread houses, it’s hard not to think of the Brothers Grimm’s story Hänsel and Gretel. Most of us grew up with the story of the two siblings who were lost in the woods and come across a gingerbread candy house where an old witch lives. While most of us assume it’s gingerbread, the original story just states that it’s a house made of cake, bread, and candy. The description reads that the house was “built entirely from bread (lebkuchen) with a roof made of cake, and the windows were made of clear sugar.”
To make a long story short, the children begin devouring the witch’s house and the witch, out of the kindness of her heart allows the children to stay with her despite the vandalism and property damage. Gretel is asked to help out around the house before she murders the poor witch by shoving her in the oven. Okay, I may be taking some biased liberties with the story, so I should probably mention that the witch had locked Hansel in a cage and was fattening him on sweets because she was planning to eat him.
Like many of Grimm’s stories, many elements predate the actual codified stories they recorded and refer to older cultural and often pagan practices and ideas. The idea that witches lived in houses made of candy and bread was popular in Germany and while popularized by the Grimm Brothers, seems to have unclear origins and was already an established belief in Germany that predate their story. These houses were supposedly made of Lebkuchen, which according to Linda Raedisch is pretty much exactly like gingerbread minus the ginger. Lebkuchen was slowly replaced with gingerbread as the spiced pastry grew in popularity over the lebkuchen.
In Germany, these houses were known as Hexenhäuschen (“witch’s cottage”) and Knusperhäuschen (“crunchy cottage”). The tradition of the Gingerbread Witch Cottages was brought to America by Pennsylvanian German immigrants and it’s unclear how it became connected with Christmas. One idea is that gingerbread shops and guilds would sell their goods outside churches and would shape them into whatever seasonal Christian celebration was occurring. It could also be due to a cross-cultural blending, as gingerbread houses were made in Sweden on St. Lucy’s Day in celebration, and St. Lucia as Lussi was also connected to witchcraft. So this might also explain a connection between the witch’s cottage and the Yuletide season.
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