It’s all About Gingerbread

By on 3 December, 2014 in Fun, Holidays, Karren Pell with 2 Comments

The Capitol Heights by Candlelight Christmas Tour has been a Montgomery tradition for 27 years. It’s a living tradition, often sporting a new element or two. This year as you tour the historic homes, look for the gingerbread houses. Gingerbread also has a long tradition and I am getting ready to tell you some tales!

The gingerbread houses in the Capitol Heights Christmas Tour are table top decorations. They were assembled by the children who live at the Brantwood Children’s Home on Upper Wetumpka Road. The kits the children used to create the houses were donated by Adams Drugstore. Brantwood Children’s Home’s participation and Adams Drugs’ support are examples of the history of Capitol Heights’ neighbors pulling together. Gingerbread, however, has its own history.

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Gingerbread is often first attributed to the Greeks who were baking a tasty cake by 2400 BC. However, some researchers claim that these cakes were honey cakes and did not contain ginger. Sounds like a sticky situation.

The Saint Gregory of Nicopolis Gingerbread Brotherhood claim that an Armenian monk brought gingerbread to Europe in the tenth century. Gregory had been forced from his country by war and found refuge in the French town of Pithiviers. He lived the life of a hermit, living in a grotto, eating edible herbs and drinking spring water embellished by the area’s famous honey. The reputation of his piety and hospitality soon spread, and he received many visitors (most unhermit-like). He often gave them a delicious, spicy pasty: gingerbread. Abbaye de Micy wrote of Gregory that “his guests, on tasting the cake, believed they were experiencing all the delights of heaven.” Gregory died in 999, but he had taught many residents how to make gingerbread. That recipe, and his relics, remain intact in Pithiviers to this day. Now that’s keeping up with history.

However, some researchers claim that Gregory’s cake was simply a honey cake like those of the Greeks. They say that true gingerbread did not appear in Europe until the 13th century. Ginger appeared as a result of trade with China along the famed Silk Road. Records document gingerbread sales in Sweden around this time By the 15th century a guild in Germany controlled the production of ginger.

By the late medieval period, the small cakes were a popular desert for fancy feasts. They were shaped like flowers or birds, even saints. They were iced with lace-like designs –sometimes with gold leaf. Gingerbread was also attributed with medicinal properties. To this day we know that ginger can help stomach ailments. Good and good for you!

The first gingerbread man is attributed to Queen Elizabeth I. She had the pastry rolled thin and shaped like miniature men and women. Then she went that critical next step and ordered cookies decorated to resemble specific courtesans. It might have seemed a bit strange to eat something resembling yourself, but no complaints have come down to us. Her favorite playwright, William Shakespeare, had a few words to say about gingerbread in Love’s Labour’s Lost:

And I had but one penny in the world, thou
Shouldst love it to buy gingerbread.

Gingerbread houses are first documented in Germany in the 19th century. Scholars are not sure whether the houses had been in vogue before the Grimm Brothers published Hansel and Gretel in 1812, or if gingerbread houses became all the rage due to the story. Regardless of which came first, gingerbread houses have remained popular. Thus, the decorations for the Capitol Heights by Candlelight Christmas Tour!

I would be remiss not to further discuss Hansel and Gretel and the part gingerbread played in their tale. You may recall that the children were abandoned by their parents in a deep dark forest – their evil-mother convinced their father to do the deed. Starving and terrified, they stumbled upon a house made of gingerbread. Of course, they proceeded to consume it. At that point the witch appeared and captured them both. She put Hansel in a cage to “fatten him up” and put Gretel to work. Hansel outsmarted the witch by giving her a finger bone left by the cage’s unfortunate previous inmate, leaving her to think he remained too skinny to cook. When she decided to roast him up regardless of his weight, Gretel tricked her and pushed her into the oven. The children then found a sack of jewels in her house and returned to their father’s home. It seemed like the step-mother was dead (thus tied to the witch), and the father was overjoyed at their return.

The lesson? Some scholars have called it a classic coming of age story. Historically, the tale may refer to practices during the great famine (1315-1321), and the children learning to escape and fend for themselves show they are ready for independence. Any modern parent who had offspring recently graduated from college can relate.

Another story involves a gingerbread man. He was scheduled to be consumed by his creators when he ran off declaring: “Run run fast as you can. You can’t catch me I’m the gingerbread man.” A series of workmen and women, and then animals, indeed failed to catch him. Then a sly fox tricked him and sure enough gobbles him up. Moral? Don’t be over confident.

So here is what I think. Be sure to go to the Capitol Heights by Candlelight Christmas Tour on December 13, 2014 from 4:00-7:00. Tickets are $10.00 on sale the day of the tour in a tent by the Greek Orthodox Church. Be sure to look for the gingerbread houses. BUT, be sure you do so in an independent manner and do not brag or even be over confident.

Just enjoy the gingerbread, and happy holidays!

Karren Pell is a writer, teacher, and performer who lives with her husband, Tim Henderson, and an assortment of cats and dogs in Capitol Heights. She is the author of three books. Her musical compositions range from commercial songs to theatrical works, with five musical adaptations to her credit.


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There Are 2 Brilliant Comments

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  1. What a delightful commentary! So glad Capitol Heights is doing this and that the young people at Brantwood participated.

  2. Jason Callahan says:

    Karen, with all due respect, I have studied the life of this Armenian monk, who ended up in France and basically presented the “gingerbread” to the world. As for your comment that “gingerbread” made by this Armenian monk was basically made with honey, is wrong. If you “only” studied Armenian history, you would have found many interesting facts and surprises, as Armenians, throughout history and by way of commerce or caravans passing through Armenia, were introduced to and were fond of ginger since 658 A.D. That is all. I always wished that people, before making any “assumptions,” gave a few minutes or an hour to find the truth about a subject they are writing about.
    Respectfully, your Irish friend, Jason Callahan

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