Ginger has been used in many ways for thousands of years, from ancient Greek and Chinese recipes and medicines to spices of the Middle Ages to the Christmas tradition of cookies and, of course, gingerbread houses. But how did the gingerbread we know today come to be, and when did it become so popular at Christmas?

Ginger itself is a knobby root that hails from Asia, from the Middle East to China. Ginger made its way to Europe in the 1st century AD, and gingerbread variations through France, Germany, Scandinavia and England began rising in popularity around the 1400s. Ginger is mixed with honey and molasses to give gingerbread its trademark sweet spongy, cake-like quality. Each country has its own spin on gingerbread, with many delicacies being referred to as “pepper cake” or “pepper bread.” Many countries in the Middle Ages had Gingerbread Markets!

Making shaped gingerbread (like gingerbread men) was a 16th century spin on the confection. Queen Elizabeth I of England (who reigned from 1588 to 1603) popularized shaping and decorating gingerbread people when she decorated cookies with the likenesses of other kings and queens of Europe! Gingerbread was so popular in England during this time that it even made it into a line of William Shakespeare’s 1597 play Love’s Labour’s Lost. Many European bakeries still craft gingerbread hearts, and it was once a symbol of affection to give gingerbread to another person.

Like many Christmas traditions celebrated in America today, gingerbread came to our country with early German settlers in the 1600s. In Germany, the art of baking and crafting ginger sweets goes back nearly 600 years, and gingerbread is such a delicacy that the occupation of gingerbread baker is not only in high regard, it’s in a league and class all of its own!

The gingerbread capital of the world is indisputably Nuremberg, Germany, where a gingerbread baker’s league was established in the 1640s. Only certified bakers of Lebkuchen (gingerbread) were allowed to craft gingerbread creations for many, many years… with the exception of Christmas and Easter, when it was declared acceptable for any household to make their own gingerbread cookies. Lebkuchen bakers fashioned kings, hearts, animals, and other beautiful shapes out of gingerbread, purchased at high prices and crafted exclusively by hand until the later 19th century, when mass production techniques made a major impact on European industries.

The gingerbread house itself has a history dating back to the early 1800s – it’s hard to say whether the practice of making gingerbread houses inspired the Brothers Grimm or if it was the other way around, but after the publishing of the Grimms’ still famous fairy tale Hansel and Gretel, gingerbread houses became quite the rage. Though the practice of decorating cookies with colored icing was already an established tradition, a house was a new undertaking. Icing or chocolate holds flat pieces of gingerbread together, while bright candies trim windows and roofs, chimneys and doors. Much like the house that Hansel and Gretel stumble upon in the woods, these houses are fully edible works of art, irresistible to children and marvels of artistry to adults.

The tradition of constructing gingerbread houses also made its way to America (and specifically, to the Museum & Theatre). Many real Victorian homes that appear to have “icing” around the roofs and windows are referred to colloquially as “gingerbread homes.”

Other gingerbread treats through the years have included gingerbread nuts – which evolved into what we know as ginger snaps, Swedish Papparkakor, and animal crackers.

Beatrix Potter’s Christmas: Traditions, Games and More from Victorian England

The holidays are here, and we are delighted to share our new production of Beatrix Potter’s Christmas: a look back at the childhood of children’s book author Beatrix Potter and the animals that inspired her illustrations and stories. In the show, Beatrix longs for a festive Christmas celebration… but exactly what kind of Christmas would a little girl in the Victorian era be celebrating?

The Victorian era is so named for Queen Victoria, who ruled the United Kingdom from 1837 to 1901. Beatrix Potter was born in 1866, and was growing up in a time when many Christmas traditions we know today were becoming popular throughout England and America.

Christmas Cards:

Do you send Christmas cards to your friends and family? This is one tradition begun by the Victorians. The first department stores in London, like Harrods and Bainbridge’s, date back to the 1830s and were thriving businesses by the late 19th century when Beatrix was young, and carried mass-produced illustrated cards that bore Christmas and New Year greetings – they rapidly grew in popularity during this time and the tradition continued into the 20th century.

Beatrix and her younger brother Bertram designed, printed and sold their own Christmas cards in the 1890s, featuring fantastical animals like the mice and rabbits she is seen sketching in our holiday show.

A Christmas greeting card designed by Beatrix Potter.


Christmas Trees, Ornaments, and Presents

O, Christmas Tree, O, Christmas Tree – do you  know the song? Maybe even the German version, O Tannenbaum? The Tannenbaum, or Christmas tree, was a German tradition beginning as early as the 1500s, but was adopted into English Christmas tradition in the 1840s and 50s after Queen Victoria’s husband Albert, who was from Germany, brought the tradition to the palace! Queen Victoria was known for making many things fashionable, from clothes to decor, and by the 1870s Christmas ornaments were being mass produced and sold in department stores. Families would decorate their own Christmas trees with nuts and candy, ribbons, candles, ornaments, and tinsel. We’ve switched to electric lights instead of candles these days, but many of us still put stars or angels on the tops of our trees, just like people did in Beatrix Potter’s time.

Christmas presents were made and purchased, wrapped with care, and hung from the tree or placed beneath it. Presents were symbols of well-wishing, and the most cherished were those made by hand, like a crocheted or knitted scarf – something one of the animals in our play gives to another!


Queen Victoria and Prince Albert's Christmas Tree at Windsor Palace.
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s Christmas Tree at Windsor Castle.


Games and Toys

Children and adults alike enjoyed playing games during Christmas. Beatrix’s housekeeper, Jane, mentions playing snapdragon, an English and American traditional game of quickly eating raisins out of hot Christmas pudding. (The game faded out during the early 20th century – the raisins were just too hot!) Children also played guessing games – such as what we know as “I Spy” with decorations on the tree – and played a game of trimming (decorating) the tree while blindfolded.

And everyone loved Christmas crackers. These aren’t the crackers we eat with slices of cheese… these are toys wrapped up bonbon style that pop when you pull them open! They contain small toys, paper crowns, and notes or riddles, but like “blind box” toys, you never know what color or style you’re going to get till you pop open the cracker. The tradition is not very widely practiced in America today, but is still popular in England.

A Victorian advertisement for Tom Smith’s Surprise Crackers – Tom Smith was a sweetmaker who created and began selling crackers in the 1840s, and the Tom Smith company still makes Christmas crackers today!


Caroling and Parties

How many Christmas carols do you know? Carols are mostly sprightly, festive tunes (though some are slower and more somber) that ring in the joy of the season. Many of the songs we still sing today, like Jingle Bells, Deck the Halls!, The Twelve Days of Christmas, and Joy to the World were all popular during the Victorian era, and this was also the heyday of caroling door to door.

Beatrix looks out her window on festive Christmas carolers in a few scenes in our play (there are some animal carolers, too!), trying to hear the music. Carolers traveled in groups, playing instruments, singing, and selling sheet music. Having parlor instruments was becoming more and more commonplace among the middle class, not just the upper class, and people were playing pianos, violins, harps, and other instruments at home to liven up the house for the holidays or for entertaining at parties, so buying sheet music from a caroler on the street was a pretty great idea! Carolers went door to door and through the streets, livening up an evening for shoppers and partygoers.


Victorian Christmas carolers.
Victorian Christmas carolers, with sheet music for The Wassail Song.

Beatrix’s parents, Rupert and Helen, were well-to-do and attended several Christmas parties as part of their social station. This was an expectation of them as it was for many upper-class Londoners, so while some families enjoyed presents and games, the Potters may have heard a carol or two, but their parties were more about seeing and being seen in high society. But it’s the sprightly carols, decorations and games that Beatrix wants in her seasonal celebrations.


To see exactly how Beatrix, her brother Bertram, and all the animal friends of their real life and imaginations celebrate Christmas, join us for Beatrix Potter’s Christmas, beginning on December 11th and running through December 22nd!