Compiled by Petra Lessoing
Kaiserslautern American

***image1***A little bit of molasses, brown sugar and a touch of ginger in your bread and you’ve got a magical treat the ancient Greeks believed had healing powers.

Gingerbread is one of the most popular, oldest and beloved Christmas cookies in Germany. Known as “Lebkuchen,” the delicious brown cookie-like bread is on the shelves again.

A big variety is available – there are Lebkuchen in different shapes, with chocolate, nuts or marmelade filling.

The history of where the name Lebkuchen comes from is a bit sketchy. It really has nothing to do with the word “leben,” which is to live. It most likely comes from the Latin word “libum,” which means flat cake or sacrifice cake.

In early times, people sacrificed to the gods what was most important to them: bread, also called “Laib.”

Throughout the years “Laibkuchen” turned into “Lebkuchen.”

Lebkuchen go back to Teutonic times. Teutones thought that the predecessor of Lebkuchen, the “Honigkuchen” or honey cake, had magical powers and helped keep bad spirits away.

The Egyptians, Romans and Greeks believed that honey comes from the gods and had magical and healing powers. They took honey cakes to the battle and gave them as burial objects into Egyptian kings’ graves.

In the Middle Ages, gingerbread was used as a means of payment. Vassals paid their feudal duty with the specialty, and dukes and civil servants were bribed with it.

Gingerbread was thought to bring good luck at wedding and baptism ceremonies. It was difficult to come by for most people because it was a valuable specialty made of expensive ingredients.

In the 11th century, a handwritten document from a monastery near Lake Tegernsee in Bavaria mentions the “Pfefferkuchen,” pepper cake, for the first time. In 1293, the first gingerbread baking guild was documented in Silesia. And, in the 14th century, the making of gingerbread became popular in Munich, Frankfurt, Basel, Vienna and Nuremberg, which is famous for its “Nürnberger Lebkuchen.”

Bee-keepers from a little town near Nuremberg helped bring fame and a good reputation to the town. There, they had plenty of fir and pine trees, oak trees and linden, sloe trees, hazelnut bushes, spurge-laurels and heather growing in the forests near Nuremberg, loads of nectar for the bees.

At that time, honey was the only existing sweetener. Due to world-wide commercial connections of local merchants, the bakers of gingerbread were able to receive all necessary ingredients – pepper, ginger, cinnamon and other spices.

In the Nuremberg area, the bee-keepers maintained about 50 farms and in 1350 Emperor Karl IV gave them the privilege of being the only people allowed to harvest the honey in his forests.

Today, the making of gingerbread is still considered an art clothed in secrets. The modern production still relies on old recipes that masters have passed down from generation to generation.

It’s unthinkable to arrange a Christmas cookie plate without the little brown bread – part of ancient myths, tradition and healing powers.