Written by Meghan E. Gattignolo
Every year, Seasons: The Museum Store throws a festive family-friendly party known as Noel Night. All are invited to enjoy some holiday cheer early in the month of December. Each year celebrates a new theme with a family craft, food, live music, free gift wrapping and special discounts. Store Manager Laura Rone is sweetening the season with a gingerbread theme for this year’s event.
Gingerbread has been a European tradition since medieval times, but hasn’t always been associated with the holidays. Ginger was brought to Europe from China on the Silk Road and used as a food preservative. The resulting hard cookies had a much longer shelf life than other baked goods. In England, the invention of creating highly decorated gingerbread men is credited to Elizabeth I, as a way to entertain high-status guests in her court. Thereafter, gingerbread made into fancy shapes became a staple at markets and fairs.
Gingerbread was also the focus of medieval German guilds, who carefully protected the gingerbread-making tradition for hundreds of years. Germany is responsible for the popularity of the other famous gingerbread construct – gingerbread houses. After Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm published their Children and Household Tales in 1812, featuring the story of Hansel and Gretel, constructing houses became a popular family pastime. It is unclear why, as time went on, making gingerbread houses evolved into a German Christmas tradition. Spices tended to be an expensive luxury during times when food scarcity was common, so it is likely that the average family had to save the ginger baking for special holidays like Christmas. As a holiday tradition, gingerbread houses immigrated to the United States with German families seeking to escape economic hardship during the political upheavals of mid-19th century Europe.
Gingerbread in America
Before Germans brought their gingerbread traditions, gingerbread had already been an American staple for over a century. George Washington’s mother even wrote down her soft gingerbread recipe that became what Americans enjoyed as a seasonal treat. If you’d like to try your hand at a gingerbread cake recipe from 1784, you can find an adaptation of Mary Ball Washington’s original recipe here.
Red River Breeze at Noel Night 2021
Noel Night 2021
Now, gingerbread is a common motif in the United States around the holiday season – and one that inspires friendly competition. The National Gingerbread House Competition has been going on in Asheville, North Carolina since 1992. Check out this article to see some amazing creations entered into the annual contest. The record for the largest gingerbread house built is held by volunteers in Bryan, Texas, who built a 21-foot-tall house in 2013 to benefit a local charity. The previous record was set by Minnesota’s Mall of America in 2006, which included seven tons of gingerbread.
Don’t forget to make the Customs House Museum & Cultural Center a part of your Clarksville holiday family tradition with Noel Night, our free public event on Thursday, December 1, from 5–8 pm. Red River Breeze will entertain with beautiful live holiday music and the Snowflake Special model trains will run all evening. Come early so you don’t miss a special visitor from the North Pole! Receive 15% off your total purchase in Seasons: The Museum Store, or 25% off if you’re a Museum Member. We hope to see you there!
History of Gingerbread | The History Kitchen | PBS Food
A brief history of the gingerbread house | Christmas and New Year holidays | The Guardian
21-foot high gingerbread house in Texas sets world record – CBS News
MOA record for world’s largest gingerbread house is no more (startribune.com)
Meghan E. Gattignolo
Meghan E. Gattignolo is a freelance writer and longtime Clarksville, TN resident. She loves to obsess about historical subjects and annoy her family daily with unsolicited random facts. Meghan holds a History B.A. from Austin Peay State University and lives in town with her husband and two daughters.
Becky Wood, Technical Writer, edits each blog post. Maegan Collins, Marketing Communications Manager, prepares photographs and visual images as well as prepares the blog posts for the web.