Gingerbread men weren’t always just a seasonal treat for kids to have fun decorating. The cookies got their start in the 16th century when Queen Elizabeth I gifted them to nobility.
Gift-giving was central to Elizabethan England’s social dynamics, as John Nichols describes compellingly in his book, The Progresses of Queen Elizabeth. England’s so-called “virgin queen” was lavished in presents for her entire life by those who wanted to show respect, stay on her good side, or marry her. She got everything from silk stockings (pdf) at New Year’s parties to diamond-encrusted fans while visiting noblemen, in addition to countless ornate trinkets from her dozens of suitors.
The gifts she gave in return were often re-gifted items that she did not care for, or things considerably less valuable than those she received. But among her most infamous gifts were gingerbread men, a pastry of her own design. While gingerbread had been a hallmark of Medieval fairs across Europe, Queen Elizabeth I’s version was different: She had the biscuits cut to resemble her suitors, decorating them with edible features and outfits, and serving them to guests, to eat their own likenesses (as described in Steven Stellingwerf’s The Gingerbread Book and The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets).
From there, the tradition took off. In England, young women would eat gingerbread “husbands” to ensure they’d one day find human husbands. Gingerbread men also earned a place on the first Christmas trees, which came to England in the Victorian Age.
And after the Brothers Grimm published Hansel and Gretel in Germany in 1812, gingerbread houses became a fixture across Europe—and now, around the world.