The History Behind the House

Photos & Story By Danielle Debley

Many of us have come to recognize the significance of the gingerbread house in holiday tradition. Even if we haven’t made one ourselves, we have seen the iconic decoration in ads, stores, and more. Gingerbread is everywhere, from the beautiful houses, to cakes, cookies, and even homemade Christmas ornaments. How did this treat become such a huge part of our holiday custom?

In Rhonda Massingham Hart’s Making Gingerbread Houses, she states that the first known recipe for gingerbread came from Greece in 2400 BC. Chinese recipes followed during the 10th century, and by the late Middle Ages, Europeans had their own version of gingerbread. According to the History Channel, the festive tradition of decorating gingerbread became popular when Queen Elizabeth I decorated them to resemble visitors to the court. Although these weren’t elaborate houses being decorated, Tori Avey, for PBS, says that the fad became so popular, that Gingerbread Fairs became a common practice, and gingerbread cookies were decorated and shared year round, their shapes changing to
represent different seasons like flowers in Spring, and birds in Autumn. Gold leaf was often used to decorate the cookies and even led to the popular expression ‘to take the gilt off of gingerbread.’ Have you heard or used that expression before?
It was during the 16th century in Germany that gingerbread houses began to pop up. These too were elaborately decorated with gold leaf and foils, and soon came to represent the Christmas season. The story of Hansel and Gretel by the Brothers Grimm, which features a witch’s house made entirely of gingerbread, seemed to popularize the scrumptious sculptures even more. There are those who are divided on which artistic expression inspired the other – gingerbread houses being a result of the popular fairy tale, or vice versa.

As people made their way across the seas to America, so did their tasty traditions. The Smithsonian credits Germans traveling to America as the ones who brought over this lebkuchenhaeusle–gingerbread house tradition. Avey found that the first American cookbook, American Cookery by Amelia Simmons, included recipes for three different kinds of gingerbread including the soft variety baked in loaves, which seemed to be the most common type made in America. The popular fairytale made its way over to the new world as well, which further drove the tradition of making gingerbread houses during the holidays.


In our day and age, we have wonderful traditions like gingerbread house making contests! They happen locally, state-wide, and even on the national level. For the past several years, kids and families from all over Harrisburg have been able to submit their own delicious designs to such a contest. Winners from each age group are then put on display at the Whitaker Center in Harrisburg. So whether you do it for fun, or make it a little more competitive, we hope this sweet tradition can be one to add to your holiday lineup. And don’t forget to check out the gingerbread houses which will be on show throughout the Whitaker Center lobby spaces until Dec. 30.