Thank the 4th wise man for gingerbread houses at Christmas

Gold, frankincense and myrrh made it to Bethlehem, but this spice was diverted elsewhere. The rest is history.

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Sheryl Novak
Sheryl Novak
Sheryl Novak is an expat Canadian and owner of SOLutions Mexico, an online furniture store in Mexico. Sign up for our free newsletters, which deliver our top headlines twice a week.
Gingerbread homes have an interesting backstory. Photo: Courtesy

Celebrating the holidays with family and friends means preparing our homes for entertaining, and decorating with festive items that reflect our traditions.

One long-standing tradition that is popular in many homes around the world is to make a gingerbread house. Since I write about decorating homes, I thought it was fitting at this time to explain the history of this tradition.

According to legend, ginger was a gift that was to be given to the baby Jesus by a fourth wise man of the Magi. The three wise men with gold, frankincense and myrrh made it to Bethlehem. The fourth unfortunately did not make it. He ended his journey in a city in Syria.

There, he gave all his ginger to a local rabbi. The students of the rabbi were accustomed to assembling and eating small houses made with baked bread to as an homage to their messiah and his birthplace. Bethlehem, in Hebrew, means “house of bread.” The fourth wise man suggested that ginger be added to the bread to make it spicier and more flavorful.

From an historical perspective, records date back to ancient Roman times that show ginger being used in cakes and drinks. Most historians believe, however, that using ginger in baking did not become a regular occurrence in Europe until the end of the 11th century. It was at this time that crusaders likely brought back spicy bread from their travels to the middle east. Before this time, it was uncommon to add any spices to bread. The gingerbread we eat today is made with recipes very much the same as what was used in German monasteries in medieval times.

Most historians believe that making gingerbread houses began early in the 16th century. This was when Grimm’s fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel was published. As the story goes, the two children who were left in the forest come across a house made from gingerbread and candies. Just as the witch enticed the children, enterprising bakers baked and created tiny replicas to attract purchases of their baked goods. There is some question as to whether the gingerbread house came as a result of the story, or whether the story followed the fable.

Nonetheless, due to their colorful designs, and use of white icing that emulated snow, over time these ornate, tasty and colorful creations became part of Christmas tradition for many families.

Gingerbread houses are assembled using melted sugar. The yard is made with white icing, giving the appearance of snow. The roof of a gingerbread house is usually covered in tiles made from gumdrops and other colorful candy. For families, spending an evening creating their unique gingerbread house is one of their many time-honored traditions.

Wishing everyone all the best this holiday season!

Sheryl Novak is an expat from Canada who has owned a home in Mexico for over 10 years. She is the owner of SOLutions Mexico, an online furniture store and an expert on sourcing all styles of furniture, for all budgets, in Mexico. 

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