The tradition of making decorated gingerbread houses started in Germany in the early 1800s. According to certain researchers, the first gingerbread houses were the result of the well-known Grimm’s fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel” in which the two children abandoned in the forest found an edible house made of bread with sugar decorations. After this book was published, German bakers began baking ornamented fairy-tale houses of lebkuchen (gingerbread). These became popular during Christmas, a tradition that came to America with Pennsylvanian German immigrants. According to other food historians, the Grimm brothers were speaking about something that already existed.
In modern times the tradition has continued in certain places in Europe. In Germany the Christmas markets still sell decorated gingerbread before Christmas. (Lebkuchenhaus or Pfefferkuchenhaus are the German terms for a gingerbread house.) Making gingerbread houses is still a way of celebrating Christmas in many families. They are built traditionally before Christmas using pieces of baked gingerbread dough assembled with melted sugar. The roof tiles can consist of frosting or candy. The gingerbread house yard is usually decorated with icing to represent snow.
A gingerbread house does not have to be an actual house, although it is the most common. It can be anything from a castle to a small cabin, or another kind of building, such as a church, an art museum, or a sports stadium, and other items, such as cars, gingerbread men and gingerbread women, can be made of gingerbread dough.
In most cases, royal icing is used as an adhesive to secure the main parts of the house, as it can be made quickly and forms a secure bond when set.
In Sweden gingerbread houses are prepared on Saint Lucy’s Day. Since 1991, the people of Bergen, Norway, have built a city of gingerbread houses each year before Christmas. Named Pepperkakebyen (Norwegian for “the gingerbread village”), it is claimed to be the world’s largest such city. Every child under the age of 12 can make their own house at no cost with the help of their parents. In 2009, the people of Bergen were shocked when the gingerbread city was destroyed in an act of vandalism. A group of building design, construction, and sales professionals in Washington, D.C., also collaborate on a themed “Gingertown” every year.
In San Francisco, the Fairmont and St. Francis hotels display rival gingerbread houses during the Christmas season.
Read more about the history of the Gingerbread house here.