How much fun is it to drive through neighborhoods during the Christmas season to check out decorations people have on exhibit in their yards? Look! There are red and green lights around the windows of this house and a bobbing, inflatable Santa near the garden. Every single tree beside the next house is adorned with large, colorful ornaments. And oh, the people who live in this house certainly know how to put on a show…they have a manger scene complete with the Holy Family and Wise Men, a row of light-up candy canes along the sidewalk, and a giant gingerbread man that smiles and holds his arms out to passersby. How cheerful! We should wave back!
And that got us to thinking: how in the world did something like gingerbread—and giant gingerbread men in particular—become associated with Christmas? They certainly aren’t mentioned in the New Testament recounting of the first Nativity!
When Did Gingerbread Become Associated with Christmas?
Ah, the flavors of the holiday! Cinnamon and peppermint sticks, eggnog, cranberries, pecan pie, roasted chestnuts, candy canes—all tasty treats that have their histories and connections to “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” (as Andy Williams so cheerfully christened the season.) Gingerbread, in particular, is a Christmas favorite. But what is its historical connection with the holiday?
Ginger is a tropical plant whose root is used to produce a popular spice. References to ginger go back to circa 500 B.C. in China and India, where it was used both for cooking and in traditional medicine. It was imported from India (which still produces a third of the world’s ginger today) throughout the Roman Empire, where it featured as a regular ingredient in recipes. Gingerbread made an appearance in Europe when 11th-century Crusaders brought ginger back from the Middle East, giving aristocrats’ cooks a unique, new spice with which to experiment. It was also used during religious ceremonies. Over time, ginger became more affordable to the masses.
Gingerbread came to be very popular throughout Europe. Vendors held “gingerbread fairs,” where people could gather to taste the delicacy. Gingerbread was often cut or molded into various shapes and symbols, creating cookies that reflected the season. And while gingerbread was popular throughout the year, in the 17th century it became very closely associated with Christmas. Such a delicious treat fit perfectly into the joy and celebration of the season.
Gingerbread Men Make an Appearance
With gingerbread being molded into so many forms, it should come as no surprise that someone decided to shape it to represent a person. The concept of a ginger-flavored cookie in the form of a man is often attributed to Queen Elizabeth I. The first gingerbread man is credited to that early Tudor queen, who delighted visiting dignitaries by presenting them with one baked in their own likeness.
This delightful idea was picked up by Russian bakers, who prepared gingerbread men and women, usually as replicas of the people attending their parties. And with the publication of the Brothers Grimm’s fairytale of “Hansel and Gretel” about 200 years later, candy-covered gingerbread houses were introduced to the collective European psyche. Gingerbread houses joined gingerbread men to become part of the celebratory Christmas family.
Today, cookies shaped like gingerbread men are a favorite snack to leave out for Santa on Christmas Eve. They are served at Yuletide parties, where it is almost a tradition in itself to bite off the head before eating the rest.
And, as many popular characters do, the character of the gingerbread man has evolved into something larger. Not all gingerbread men are munch-size cookies.
Fun with Giant Gingerbread Men!
When it comes to things we really love, bigger is often better. And Christmas might well be the biggest, most joyous holiday of the year. “Let’s put up a bigger tree!” “Let’s display giant candy canes and toy soldiers!” And with the long history gingerbread men have with Christmas, of course the challenge was met to create a giant gingerbread man.
The biggest gingerbread man in the world was baked by the folks at IKEA in Norway in 2009. This huge, icing-covered treat weighed 1,435 pounds. And for additional “icing on the cake” (or cookie!) fun, this gingerbread man was officially unveiled by the world’s tallest man at the time, 8′1″ tall Sultan Koesen of Turkey.
In Smithfield, Texas, a 20-foot-tall giant gingerbread man figure named “Smitty” stands on Main Street. It holds the record as the largest gingerbread figure in the United States. With his red buttons, big smile, name badge, and Santa hat, Smitty offers a huge, welcoming smile to those who visit.
Not to be outdone, it makes sense that someone would create a giant gingerbread house too. The largest one was created by the Traditions Club in Bryan, Texas, in November 2013. The delicious-looking house was 60 feet long, 42 feet wide, and 10 feet tall at its highest point. Visitors paid to meet Santa inside the house, and the money was donated to build a trauma center for St. Joseph’s Hospital.
Larger-than-life (and talking!) gingerbread men have had their time on the silver screen as well. In the Shrek series of movies, a charming cookie character named “Gingy” serves as Shrek’s good pal. He may not be giant, but he makes a big impression in the films. So much so that someone decided to create a life-size Gingy costume for Christmas and put on a show!
Gigantic gingerbread men have also become popular lawn decorations along with other well-known Christmas regulars. Some are inflatable and must be “pumped up” each evening. Other giant gingerbread men stand on their own, outside or in foyers or family rooms beside the Christmas tree, there to help welcome guests to holiday festivities.
And so it is that the giant gingerbread man was welcomed to the Christmas Ball. He remains a huge favorite, a cheerful reminder of the vast happiness and anticipation to be found during that “Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”