Gingerbread! The very word makes you smile. And who doesn’t love a gingerbread house? Of all the traditions of the season, perhaps none captures the imagination more than this one. Gingerbread houses originated hundreds of years ago in medieval Germany, but gingerbread itself has actually been around for thousands of years.
Ginger root was first cultivated in ancient China where it was used as a medical treatment, but it wasn’t until the 10th century that the Chinese began to bake gingerbread. Long before that, around 2400 BC, the Greeks and Egyptians were the first to develop a recipe for gingerbread. They baked it into hard shapes for religious ceremonies, which was its primary use through the 17th century. By the Middle Ages, ginger found its way to Europe from the Far East where it was immediately popular, first as a digestive aid and preservative, then as a tasty cookie. Gingerbread gradually moved away from religious uses and by the late Middle Ages, Russian bakers began making gingerbread men and women. Gingerbread designs became more and more intricate as these cookies caught the fancy of bakers all around Europe. Elaborate gingerbread creations, sometimes gilded with gold leaf, became a staple of Medieval Fairs. To this end, special molds were designed just for gingerbread, elevating baked gingerbread to a popular art form. However, it was Germany that took gingerbread to a new level during the 16th century, when they began to fashion it into houses. Centuries later, the Brothers Grimm’s tale of Hansel and Gretel and the house in the woods made entirely of candy, boosted their popularity. Soon gingerbread houses, now adorned with candy and other confections, became more and more festive and synonymous with the holiday season.
Today the tradition is as popular as ever. Part of the appeal, besides the fact that you can eat them, is that gingerbread houses can be made and enjoyed by anyone, from small children to professional bakers, and everyone in between. No matter your skill level, it is almost impossible to make a gingerbread house that doesn’t exude charm. There are no rules and almost no limit to what can be made from gingerbread. Contests and displays abound this time of year, but no contest outdoes the Omni Grove Park Inn competition in Asheville, North Carolina. Now in its 24th year, bakers lovingly and carefully transport their gingerbread creations from around the country. Elsewhere, the gingerbread house that currently holds the Guinness World Record for the largest gingerbread house ever, was constructed at Traditions Golf Course in Bryan Texas in 2013. At 2.500 square feet, it was so big it required a building permit!
Closer to home, you can enjoy the 29th annual Gingerbread House Display at the Mormon Trail Center in the Florence area of Omaha. Featuring dozens of houses from simple, but no less charming ones, created by children and families, to elaborate imaginative structures complete with landscaping and minute details. It is free for the public to visit daily from 10 am – 8 pm until December 31. Another newer local tradition, now in its fourth year, is the Gingerbread House Display at the Magnolia Hotel downtown. In year’s past, it has even featured a gingerbread Omaha skyline, complete with many city landmarks. This year, the entire hotel staff was involved in creating a gingerbread village surrounding an 8 foot tall gingerbread tree concocted by the chefs – a 320 hour endeavor. Stop by the lobby anytime this holiday season to see it.