Is your family a fan of gingerbread around the holidays? Maybe you make a family gingersnap treat, maybe you add ginger to your hot chocolate for a wintery take on pumpkin spice or maybe you make traditional gingerbread men cookies. But have you ever thought about where this tradition came from? And better yet, why are the cookies usually shaped like men?
It all started in the 16th century with Queen Elizabeth I. She was known for her elaborate dinner parties that frequently included treats (mostly marzipan) shaped like fruit, birds, etc. and -- you guessed it -- gingerbread men. In fact, she had a royal gingerbread maker on staff specifically for this purpose.
“She did do a banquet where she had gingerbread men made to represent foreign dignitaries and people in her court,” Carole Levin, director of the medieval studies program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, told TIME.
Was this the queen's play at clever diplomacy? Get royal dignitaries to come to her parties and simply woo them with cookies shaped like themselves? Not a bad idea, if you ask us.
But, of course, the queen wasn't the only one dishing out gingerbread men during this time. In the medieval age of potions and apothecaries, folk medicine practitioners would market gingerbread men as a way to get someone to fall in love with you.
“If they could get the man of their choice to eat the gingerbread man that had been made for them, the idea was the man would then fall in love with the young woman,” Levin explained. Are there any Shakespeare plays about this phenomenon? Because if there isn't, there should be.
So, why the holidays? Well, that explanation could be as simple as the belief that spices can warm you up in colder weather. Although, some of the earliest traces of gingerbread didn't have ginger in it at all -- and wasn't even bread. It was more like a honey cake, and eaten by men in ancient Greece as an aphrodisiac. Some earlier gingerbread was even made to resemble toffee and marketed as a candy rather than a bread or cookie.
By the 17th century, though, gingerbread resembled what we still have today, thanks to butter and cream. And the man shape? Well, we'll thank the royals for that one.