Queen Elizabeth I May Have Inspired The First Gingerbread Men

While we can probably have them any time of year, gingerbread people take on special significance during the Christmas season, where for many families, these fun and festive edible creatures are made and decorated as part of a tradition. They are then either turned into snacks or hung up as tree decorations.

Humanity's love affair with their gingerbread goes back to the Middle Ages when it was consumed for its spices during cold weather. As author Michael Krondl tells Time, "The popularity of gingerbread during the holidays can, at least in part, be attributed to the belief that spices heated you up in the winter."

Slate adds that an early form of gingerbread came in a mix that included breadcrumbs, a sweet syrup of either molasses or honey and wine. Cookbook author Jennifer Linder McGlinn says this primitive form of gingerbread was easy to shape into flowers, religious symbols, and even people, depending on the occasion. Slate adds that women were even known to consume gingerbread men to help them find husbands. As the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's director of the medieval studies program, Carole Levin, put it, "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," per Time.

Queen Elizabeth I made gingerbread men in the shape of her guests

Credit for taking gingerbread and shaping the pastry into kings and queens belongs to Queen Elizabeth I, who PBS says made cookies in the form of important people that came to see her at court. No surprises, it seems, for a monarch, who Time says had a dedicated royal gingerbread maker and was already known for serving up fancy meals decorated with edible fruit, animals, and palatial homes that had been shaped with marzipan.

In case you were wondering whether accounts of Queen Elizabeth I's fondness for gingerbread might have been exaggerated, Levin confirms that "She did do a banquet where she had gingerbread men made to represent foreign dignitaries and people in her court," per Time.

Its thanks to gingerbread's evolution in England that colonists were eventually able to bring gingerbread to the New World, where the cookies were even used in Virginia as a campaign giveaway by aspiring politicians, per PBS. But there's no word on whether those cookies came in the shape of the politicians who were giving them away.