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Origins of the gingerbread man

by EVELYN WONG

Whether he is hanging on the Christmas tree as a cheerful ornament or lying on the dinner plate ready to be eaten, the gingerbread man has been a popular winter celebrity for many generations.

The name “gingerbread” comes from its main ingredient, preserved ginger, which is gingebras in Old French, according to howstuffworks.com. It also comes from the Latin word zingebar, or “horn-shaped,” which describes the appearance of the ginger root.

According to dailymail.co.uk, the earliest gingerbread was used in religious ceremonies by the ancient Greeks and Egyptians. It was brought to Europe in the 11th century by crusaders returning home from the Middle East. At this time, however, only the wealthy were able to afford to use ginger in their cooking.

The first recorded English recipe for gingerbread was produced in 1390; the treats were made by soaking breadcrumbs in honey and ginger.

During the middle ages, gingerbread men are said to have been used as entertainment for Queen Elizabeth I, according to kitchendaily.com. Her attendants shaped the “bread” into the shapes of her favorite suitors and courtiers, adding elaborate gold leaves as decoration and eating it at royal feasts.

As gingerbread grew more affordable and accessible to the masses during the 17th century, it became a popular treat at public fairs and holiday feasts. Instead of using breadcrumbs, the English made gingerbread with flour, eggs and alternative sweeteners, such as molasses.

In England it became a tradition for village maidens to eat a gingerbread “husband” on Halloween to ensure that they would find a real husband that year. In Hungary and Yugoslavia, gingerbread dolls were used as love tokens and exchanged between couples. They were decorated with romantic images or embellished with tiny mirrors to symbolize a boy and girl gazing endlessly at each other.

According to easteuropeanfood.about.com, people began making gingerbread houses in 1812, after the publication of the German classic, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and the story of “Hansel and Gretel.” This tale inspired many families to bake replicas of houses for their gingerbread men.

Gingerbread has been popular in the United States for more than two centuries. According to saveur.com, the well-known children’s tale, “The Gingerbread Boy,” was first published in 1875 in the St. Nicholas Magazine, adding popularity to the treat.

From his famous line, “Run, run as fast as you can, you can’t catch me I’m the gingerbread man,” this beloved, freshly-baked treat has served as a symbol of childhood, bringing memories of old bedtime stories and spreading holiday cheer.

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