Christmas Past

The fascinating stories behind your favorite Christmas traditions

Backstory — Gingerbread Houses

image of a home made gingerbread house

For centuries, gingerbread has been connected with all kinds of celebrations and holidays. In this episode, we look at the history of gingerbread and the somewhat mysterious origins of the gingerbread house.

Some fun gingerbread facts

  • Early gingerbread recipes consisted of ginger, breadcrumbs, honey, and spices (including pepper)
  • The first gingerbread man cookies are believed to have come from the court of Queen Elizabeth I
  • Gingerbread has long been a celebration food. You’d find it at fairs and festivals centuries ago
  • For a while, gingerbread baking was an official profession. In the 17th Century, only licensed professionals were allowed to bake gingerbread

In this episode, we hear from Melissa Ferrar from San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel. They build a life-size gingerbread house each year!

image of the life sized gingerbread house at the Fairmont hotel
The Fairmont Hotel builds a life sized gingerbread house every year!

We started off the episode with my mom, who made gingerbread houses from scratch each year. Those store-bought gingerbread house kits are fine, but nothing beats the real thing!

If you’re interested in building your own gingerbread house from scratch, check out this guide from King Arthur Flour.

I also mentioned the Reddit Secret Santa program. 2016 is the 8th year of the program. This will be my second year participating. It’s a lot of fun. If you want to participate, you’ll have to act fast! There’s a deadline to register.

Music in this episode

Episode transcript

Brian’s Mom 0:04
I would take ice cream cones and put them upside down and paint in green, and put all kinds of like m&ms or decorations to make it look like there’s a Christmas tree.

Brian Earl 0:15
I’m talking to my mom about something that was one of my favorite Christmas traditions. When I was growing up.

Brian’s Mom 0:20
We also had a cookie cutter that we could cut out reindeer. So I had reindeers and then I put a blob of frosting in and have the ring deer stand up. It really looked like a fantasy village.

Brian Earl 0:34
Every year around the beginning of December, she would come home from the grocery store with a bag full of goodies, boxes of nilla wafers, those individually wrapped caramel squares, gumdrops, and those candies shape like little spearmint leaves, candy sprinkles and marshmallows and m&ms and confectioners sugar and vanilla cake frosting. She’d get to work making a special dough from scratch. She got the recipe from a magazine and then the kitchen windows would steam up and the whole place would smell like molasses and ginger and cloves and cinnamon. And after everything had cooled and set she’d used the cake frosting to hold the pieces together as she assembled them into a gingerbread house and then my four siblings and I would decorate it with all of those items from the goodie bag. Caramels would turn into a chimney nilla wafers would become roof tiles spearmint leaves as front shrubs, gumdrops and m&ms for various kinds of decorative trim and dusted with a coat of confectioner’s sugar. The deal was on Christmas morning we were allowed to eat the gingerbread house. But until then, it was look but don’t touch. You remember Hansel and Gretel, don’t you? I mean, if you want it to create something specifically designed to tempt a child beyond all hope of self control, you would create a gingerbread house. It was torture. But on Christmas morning, after the gifts were open, and the Christmas breakfast was over, and as stale as the thing had gotten by then, that wasn’t enough to stop Five little cookie monsters from tearing the house down. And looking back. I’m pretty surprised that was five kids in the house. The thing even made it to Christmas

Brian’s Mom 2:12
Very mysteriously though, at certain times, goodies would disappear off the gingerbread house. No one’s saying they did I guess it was just one of Santa’s elves.

Brian Earl 2:23
it wasn’t me. I swear. You know, because of my mom, my siblings, and I still love making gingerbread houses even to this day. That’s how traditions work. They get passed down from generation to generation. But just how this tradition got started. Well, that’s a bit of a mystery. I’m Brian Earl. This is Christmas past.

Let’s go back all the way to the turn of the 11th century. Traders returning from the Middle East, we’re just starting to introduce the ginger root to Europe. At first it was used medicinally to treat digestive issues and even hangovers, but then it was used as a spice and it was also discovered that it could be a good preservative. This is probably a big part of the reason it caught on. preserving food was really important in those days before packaging and refrigeration, and eventually along comes gingerbread. Now the word itself has a surprising history because maybe you’ve noticed that most gingerbread isn’t really like bread at all. So why the name? Well, the earliest known recipes bear almost no resemblance to what we know today. In the first place. They were called Gingebras which was borrowed from an old French term meaning simply preserved ginger. Those recipes called for boiling breadcrumbs and honey with ginger and other spices like licorice and pepper. The result was more like a confection than a cake or a bread. Nevertheless, by the 14th century, Ginger bras had morphed into ginger bread. Now it’s no surprise that we would eventually make houses out of gingerbread, when you consider that it has a long history of being turned into other eye catching works of art. Baker’s would press the dough into ornately carved molds or press a decorative stamp into cookie dough and it was still warm, they’d be dusted with sugar to highlight the designs are often gilded and iced. They come in countless shapes and designs. And these gingerbread molds are actually displayed in some museums in Europe. Of course stamped and molded gingerbread pieces eventually gave way to the now familiar gingerbread man. And the first documented example of gingerbread cookies cut into a figure was in the court of Queen Elizabeth the first. Now here’s where things get a little bit interesting. We know that gingerbread houses first showed up in Germany sometime in the 19th century. But why is a bit of a mystery. There’s no doubt they became common after the Brothers Grimm published Hansel and Gretel in 1812. But historians disagree on whether gingerbread houses were already a common thing before that. In other words, it’s possible that the Brothers Grimm invented the gingerbread house with their story or maybe they didn’t. What is certain that Is that after Hansel and Gretel. bakers in Germany started selling ornamented fairy tales style gingerbread houses, which became popular during Christmas. And that tradition came to America with the German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania. It’s interesting that the word gingerbread is also used to describe the intricate fretwork you see in some styles of architecture, like you see in those Victorian Painted Ladies in San Francisco. So I guess it was only a matter of time before someone would build an actual San Francisco Victorian out of gingerbread,

Melissa Ferrar 5:34
the holiday display at the Fairmont San Francisco is really destination. It’s become this tradition for people to come and visit the hotel.

Brian’s Mom 5:41
That’s Melissa Farrar

Melissa Ferrar 5:43
Like Ferrari without the E sound.

Brian Earl 5:45
And she’s the Director of Marketing Communications at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. Every year, the Fairmont creates a life sized gingerbread house, I mean, you can actually walk inside it and puts it on display in the lobby.

Melissa Ferrar 5:57
So it’s really this experience that you really participate in. And I think it is, I mean, it’s, it’s seeing kids see this giant gingerbread house and their eyes lighting up, but also seeing the adults that kind of brings out the kid and the adults. So it’s just an amazing and fun experience for everyone involved.

Brian Earl 6:13
Thousands of people come to see it each year. And this thing includes almost 8000 individual gingerbread bricks, and 700 pounds of candy and a ton of royal icing. Now, don’t worry, it’s San Francisco. So everything’s composted afterward. Everything that is that doesn’t fall into the sneaky little hands of hungry visitors.

Melissa Ferrar 6:33
It’s like Willy Wonka, you know, it’s just there right in front of them. And I think people just can’t help themselves sometimes. But we do have signs saying, you know, Santa is watching.

Brian Earl 6:47
Well, I can’t wait to see this year’s gingerbread house in person. And if you’re interested in seeing what the house has looked like in years past, we’ll head right on over to Christmas Past podcast.com. And check out the show notes for this episode, you’ll see pictures of that guide to making gingerbread houses courtesy of King Arthur flour, and even some pictures of my mom’s gingerbread houses. Thanks to everyone for permission to put those on there. Again, that’s Christmas pass podcast.com. And now let’s hear a Christmas memory from Lisa, who lives in Belgium. This one requires a little bit of setup. Every year. The website reddit.com has a secret santa program that anyone can sign up for. And it’s just what it sounds like. You’ll send someone a gift and someone will send you one in return. I did it last year. And it’s a lot of fun. I got this wooden cut out of a bicycle because I indicated that Cycling is one of my hobbies. I’m definitely going to do it again this year. And if you’re interested, just come to Christmas pass podcast.com check out the show notes for this episode. And I’ll put a link in. Now this program is worldwide. And as you might imagine, sometimes things don’t quite work out the way they’re supposed to. One of the things you can do when you sign up is volunteer to be a rematch Santa’s. What that means is if there’s someone who is expecting a gift, but for whatever reason that doesn’t arrive, you’ll make sure that they get one anyway. And that’s what Lisa did. She wanted to give and not receive. But sometimes these things have a way of working their own magic, and she ended up receiving something very unexpected.

Liza in Belgium 8:14
I actually received the best gift ever on Christmas Day. When I messaged my rematch gift-ee we headed off almost right away. We exchanged numbers. And then after hours and hours of talking and lying awake together. And I just suggested we should meet at the steps of the Sacre Coeur in Paris on Valentine’s Day. And then we did it. We actually booked your tickets to Paris. I just knew that he was the one. And as I’m recording this, we’re together for six months. So this Christmas was life changing. And I got the biggest and best Christmas gifts ever.

Brian Earl 8:55
my goodness. That all sounds very, very…European. Hey, if you want to share a Christmas memory, it’s super easy. All you have to do is record a voice memo on your phone and email it to me at Christmas Past podcast@gmail.com. Try to keep it to about a minute and be sure to say your name and where you’re from. Also, if you’re shy about recording your own voice, that’s fine. You can just write me an email and maybe I’ll get a chance to share it here on the show. Again, that’s Christmas Past podcast@gmail.com Christmas Past is produced in sunny San Mateo, California by yours truly, Brian Earl. I’d like to thank my mom and also Melissa Farrar

Melissa Ferrar 9:32
like Ferrari without the E sound.

Brian Earl 9:34
And also thanks to Lisa in Belgium. Hey, I know that last Christmas is a tough act to follow. But I hope this year is just as merry and bright. If you’re not yet subscribed to the podcast, well, it’s just one click or tap away. Check it out on iTunes or however you get your podcasts. That way when a new episode comes you don’t have to worry about it. It’s delivered right to you and we can keep the Christmas spirit going together all season long. And of course we can keep things going between episodes on social media. Yeah, come by Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and search for Christmas Past podcast in all three places. That’s where you’ll find me and all of the fun vintage Christmas stuff and Christmas trivia I’m posting all the time. Well, that’ll do it for this episode. Thank you very much for listening and I hope to see you next time.

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