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December 21, 2004 > A Gingerbread Tradition

A Gingerbread Tradition

by Arathi Satish

Making gingerbread houses has been a long standing tradition as a holiday festivity in the United States. The houses can make impressive centerpieces for the holiday table.

The generic name for ginger comes from the Sanskrit word "Sringavera" that means "root shaped like a horn." The spice originated in Asia and was traded in India. The Chinese used it for medical treatment and the Romans used it for flavoring food and the Japanese used it for pickles.

Gingerbread has been baked in Europe since the 11th century. It was baked in different ways. It was either soft and spicy or crisp and sweet. It was sometimes light, sometimes dark, but it was mostly cut in the shapes of men, women, animals or stars. It was colorfully decorated or stamped with a mold or dusted with white sugar. It was always attractive and eye catching.

In medieval England, ginger meant "preserved ginger" and was an adaptation of Old French "gingebras," derived from the Latin name of the spice, Zingebar. During the 15th century the term was applied to a cake made with trecle and flavored with ginger. As ginger had the quality of preservation, it was probably used in cakes, cookies and bread. Toward the end of the 11th century, the manufacturing of gingerbread spread to Western Europe, possibly introduced by the returning crusaders from wars in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Gingerbread items were very popular at fairs. Indeed, many fairs were called Gingerbread Fairs and gingerbread items were called "farings," the generic meaning of "gift bought" or "given from a fair." Different seasons were represented by different shapes of gingerbread. During Easter, buttons and flowers were seen. In autumn, animals and birds were featured. Unmarried women used to eat gingerbread "husbands" at fairs, hoping to find a real husband!

Among all the European countries, Germany has the longest tradition of flat shaped gingerbreads. There were stalls filled with decorated gingerbread hearts tied with ribbons at autumn fairs. The traditions in France, similar to those in Germany, had their own guild and held gingerbread fairs.

The gingerbread was modernized and romanticized in 19th century. The Grimm brothers, during their collection of German fairy tales discovered the tale of Hansel and Gretel, two children who had been abandoned in the woods by poor parents. The children came across a dream house made of bread, cake and candies. By the end of the century, the composer Englebert Humperdink had written an opera about the boy and girl and the gingerbread house.

Many settlers who came from Europe introduced gingerbread to North America. Americans use less spice than Europeans do and regional differences do exist. The greatest collection of recipes is alleged to exist in the United States. During the holiday season, there is an innumerable choice of ingredients, baking items and decorative ideas. Gingerbread exhibitions are held all over the country and spectacular houses are created. Construction of a gingerbread house follows the building concepts of a real house. Planning is vital for a good construction.

Gingerbread houses need not be restricted to the Christmas season, but can be creatively extended to other occasions too. A haunted house can be built for Halloween, gingerbread carriage for a baby shower, etc.

Gingerbread house building is an excellent way to involve children in the holiday festivities. As a part of their holiday celebrations, the second graders at John Gomes Elementary School made their own little gingerbread houses on Dec. 17. They were given instructions by their teachers and participated with great enthusiasm. Each class made its own version of gingerbread house.

In Ms. Rosemary Cortez's classroom, children made miniature gingerbread houses using single serving milk cartons, white icing, graham cracker squares and decorations. The children were first grouped into clusters of four. Each child had his or her own carton that was placed on a circular plate. The children attached graham cracker squares to sides of carton by spreading white icing on carton and firmly pressing onto carton. The same technique was used for the roof. Colorful candies were used to decorate. Ms. Cortez, who was as excited as her students and the parents who had come to help said, "The real enjoyment not only comes from doing the project, but also watching the kids build their own unique gingerbread house."

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