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Christmas Gingerbread Houses

A Not-So-Festive History of Gingerbread Houses

This year’s festive blog post is inspired by Nostell Priory close to the Nostell Estate, which is where you’ll find the Newport Land and Law office.

Along with all the usual Christmas fare you’d expect to find at a National Trust property, Nostell Priory is currently playing host to a miniature gingerbread village within the main house itself. Each house is made of 100% real gingerbread, so, as you can probably imagine, the whole thing smells divine. There are gallons of icing and gumdrops, twinkly lights, snowy peaks and even a little train that runs through the village. However, we reckon the real magic is how anyone resists taking a bite as they pass through.

Now, if we were influencers, this is where we’d be saying this is not an #AD!. We just happen to love baked goods at the best of times, and festive baked goods are even more on brand. (We’re not joking when we tell you the office has been fully decked out since mid-November.)

The problem is; once you start thinking about delicious gingerbread houses, it becomes very difficult to stop. You’ll have to indulge us as we delve into their history – though we do apologise for any sugar cravings you may experience while reading this post.

Is everybody sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin with the highly Christmassy tale of a father abandoning his two hungry children deep in the woods, where they later meet a cannibalistic witch. Oh… wait. That’s not actually very festive, is it?!

The only joyful part of the story of Hansel and Gretel (aside from their eventual triumph, of course) is the fact that the witch’s cottage is made of edible treats. This sweet structure is said to have inspired German bakers to start making gingerbread houses, though many culinary historians consider this something of a chicken and egg situation.

The story of Hansel and Gretel gained popularity in the early 1800s, when the Brothers Grimm published it in their book of fairy tales. Though it’s true that gingerbread houses do seem to have been more widely made after this time, some historians have pointed out that German bakers had been making them since the 1600s. It’s difficult to know whether it’s actually the baked treats that inspired the fairy tale, or whether gingerbread architecture was invented as a response to an earlier version of the tale, which we know existed long before the Grimms showed up to write it down.  

Now that we have a vague idea of the origins of gingerbread houses, the next question is how they came to be associated with Christmas. After all, it’s difficult to see the festive connection to baked goods that are at least partly inspired by a story of children being fattened up for the stove.

Gingerbread itself has a very long history which can be traced all the way back to 2400 BC in Greece. The first written record of a British gingerbread recipe isn’t found until the fifteenth century which, controversially, doesn’t actually include any ginger. Rather, the baked treat was made with honey, breadcrumbs and spices including cinnamon and cloves. Thankfully, by the seventeenth century, honey and breadcrumbs were out, and ginger, flour and treacle were very much in.

Spices were very expensive at this time, and serving gingerbread to your guests would’ve been a pretty big power move. The trend for making shapes and figures out of gingerbread is said to have gained popularity in the court of Elizabeth I, who liked to wow her grandest visitors by serving them their own likeness in gingerbread.

By the nineteenth century, gingerbread was still quite an expensive treat for special occasions. In Britain, it had come to be particularly associated with fairs, where people often enjoyed decorated gingerbread figures. If the tasty treats themselves weren’t enough of a draw, it was also considered good luck to eat a piece of gingerbread that’d been bought at a fair. Any excuse, we reckon. (Do you think we can collectively decide that eating gingerbread in the office brings good fortune? As always, we’re only thinking of our clients and their transactions.)

It’s around this time that gingerbread began to be associated with Christmas. Like many of the yuletide traditions we know and love, Prince Albert seems to have led the charge on this one. There’s an old German tradition that states that St Nicholas brings rods for naughty children and gingerbread for good ones. Prince Albert is said to have recreated this by dressing up as Father Christmas to present his children with gingerbread treats. Let’s all be thankful he opted for the gingerbread rather than the rods, as they’d probably be difficult to stuff in a stocking.

It seems to have been a quick hop, skip and festive jump from gingerbread treats to gingerbread houses. And that, as they say, is history. Though we stand by our point about the fairy tale origins being decidedly un-Christmassy… we’re prepared to overlook that in order to enjoy the icing and the sweets and the edible silver balls.

If you need us in the run up to Christmas, we’ll be working our usual hours until the 20th, when we will be closing the office and opening the Baileys. We’d love to hear from you any time before then, though, as always, if you’re planning on uttering the words “can we complete before Christmas”, we strongly advise you to reconsider.

From everyone at Newport Land and Law, we wish you a very happy festive season filled with joy, merriment and baked goods.

P.S. If you’d like us to ruin any other beloved Christmas traditions for you, you might like to reread previous festive posts, including: A Christmas Trip Down Quality Street, The History of Christmas Decorations (and Why Mistletoe Probably Isn’t As Romantic As You Thought) and, of course, A Cheery-But-Realistic Guide to Your Festive Transaction.

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