You’re probably familiar with the classic gingerbread man cookie. But do you know the legend behind the holiday staple? Here’s what you need to know about the folk tale and the ancient recipe that inspired it.
Gingerbread Man Story
The legend of the gingerbread man varies depending on where and by whom it’s being told. Here’s our version of the classic tale, which includes many of the most popular elements:
An old woman and her husband lived alone in a cabin buried deep in the woods, away from the hustle and bustle of the village.
The couple was lonely. With no children of their own, they were forced to live out their days and nights in solitude.
It was on one of these nights that an idea occurred to the woman: She would make a boy out of gingerbread. If she couldn’t have a son, this was the next best thing.
As she pulled her creation out of the oven, however, the boy (or “man,” as it is often called) jumped from the pan and fled the cabin.
The woman and her husband chased after the humanoid dessert to no avail. As he ran, the gingerbread man happily sang a song.
“Run, run, as fast as you can. You can’t catch me—I’m the gingerbread man!”
First, the man passed a cow.
“Mmmmyouuuuu look delicious,” said the cow.
“Run, run, as fast as you can. You can’t catch me—I’m the gingerbread man,” the man sang as he easily outran the cow.
Next, he came upon an owl.
“Who...who...who are you? I’m very hungry,” the owl said.
Again, the gingerbread man sang his song.
Finally, he met a fox.
The cookie was prepared to mock the cunning creature like he had his too-slow friends.
But, to the gingerbread man’s surprise, the fox wasn’t interested.
“I don’t know what the cow and the owl are talking about,” the fox said. “You don’t look like you taste good at all.”
The man stood in front of the animal in stunned silence.
Before he could formulate a reply, though, the fox gobbled him up in one swift motion.
History and Variations
This story originally appeared in print in an 1875 issue of St. Nicholas Magazine, a popular monthly American children's publication, under the title “The Gingerbread Boy.”
“Now you shall hear a story that somebody’s great, great grandmother told a little girl ever so many years ago,” begins the folk tale.
In the 1875 version, the cookie runs from an increasingly diverse cast of characters (including farm animals and human workers) while chanting, “I've run away from a little old woman, a little old man, and I can run away from you, I can!”
The original story also featured a slightly more grisly ending: As the fox ate the gingerbread man limb-by-limb, he cried, “"I'm quarter gone … I'm half gone … I'm three-quarters gone … I'm all gone!"
Similar tales of escaped food can be found in cultures all over the world: The mischievous character takes the form of bread dough in Russia, a pancake in Germany, and a dumpling in Hungary.
What’s the Moral?
The gingerbread man story’s moral is slightly dark for a fable meant for children: Be careful who you trust. The cookie believed the fox when he said he wasn’t tempted to eat him—this misguided trust led to the protagonist’s downfall.
What Is Gingerbread and Where Does It Come From?
Historically, “gingerbread” refers to cake-like bread made with ginger and molasses.
Experts trace gingerbread’s roots to around 1500 B.C.E. in Ancient Egypt. Honey cakes—flavored with ginger and other spices—have been found in pharaohs’ tombs, along with written references to the confection.
As these things often do, the general recipe spread to neighboring countries.
It wasn’t until about 992 C.E. that a monk named Gregory of Nicopolis brought gingerbread from Greece to France. This wasn’t a unique occurrence—many spices native to the Middle East became commonplace in northern Europe during the Middle Ages.
The gingerbread that we’re familiar with today more closely resembles this European take on the ancient blend of sugar and spice.
Other holiday spices (like nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom, anise, and cloves) are often included in recipes in addition to ginger.
Gingerbread vs. Gingerbread Cookies vs. Ginger Snaps
“Gingerbread” commonly refers to a wide range of sweet treats, from the O.G. cake-like bread to gingerbread cookies and gingersnaps.
Gingerbread is dark, spicy, and cake-like. It’s usually baked in a loaf or bundt pan.
Gingerbread cookies (including the ones shaped like people) and gingersnaps are both heavily spiced cookies. The main difference is that gingersnaps are baked longer to achieve a crispier texture, while gingerbread cookies are typically chewier and often shaped like people. Popular elements include facial features drawn with icing and gumdrop or chocolate “buttons.”
How Did the Gingerbread Man Become Associated With Christmas?
The earliest account of person-shaped gingerbread cookies is from the 16th century. Elizabeth I of England surprised guests with “biscuits” that were designed in their likeness.
Its association with the holiday season, which didn’t come until later, is likely a practical one: Some people attribute the tradition to the weather, as ginger has a comforting way of warming the person who is eating it.
Others say that, since gingerbread was once considered a delicacy reserved for special occasions, its connection to Christmas is natural.
These days, when we say “gingerbread,” we could be referring to a wide variety of tasty treats. Basically, the name applies to pretty much anything that heavily features the blend of spices (ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, etc.) that we’ve come to associate with the holidays.
Try your hand at the classic gingerbread man or another gingerbread-inspired dessert this season: