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The Not-So-Grimm Story of Gingerbread Houses

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This Christmas, you might find yourself elbow-deep in frosting and candy canes, trying to construct a gingerbread house that doesn’t collapse. But it turns out that creating a gingerbread house isn’t just a Christmas construction project—it’s a ritual with sometimes surprising connections to royalty, brutal fairy tales, and global trade.

Although versions of gingerbread date to ancient Egypt and Greece, the gingerbread we eat today has its roots in the Middle Ages, when cakes became all the rage in Europe as an increasingly global world opened up to new spices and ingredients. First there was fruitcake. The once-hot, now played-out treat came into favor after medieval cooks finally got access to dried fruit from Spain and Portugal thanks to increased trade in the 13th century.

That led to a vogue in cakes and breads, which spread as better construction made having an oven in your house less terrifying. Trade with the East also made the ingredients in gingerbread available for the first time. Early gingerbread recipes contain spices that were once coveted and expensive, like cinnamon, sandalwood, and saffron, which became increasingly accessible after the Crusades. Gingerbread became big business, and local variations began to arise. Lebkuchen, a gingerbread-like spiced treat, became popular in Germany, and guilds of gingerbread makers began to emerge in the 15th and 16th centuries.

As gingerbread makers got better at their craft, they began to press the luxurious creations into intricate molds and even paint them. The sweet treat became a popular way for rich rulers to impress visitors, as when Elizabeth I handed out gingerbread men to visiting dignitaries.

Then, a simple story thrust gingerbread from yummy treat to full-blown cultural phenomenon. Though the original doesnt reference gingerbread specifically, the Brothers Grimm's “Hansel and Gretel” told the story of two children who are left to starve by their poor, hungry parents, then enticed and imprisoned by a wicked witch in a house “built of bread and covered with cakes.”

After the Grimms published the tale in 1812, building gingerbread houses became a popular pastime in Germany. Food historians debate whether the Grimms’ story simply drew on gingerbread houses that were already popular, or whether it gave people the idea in the first place, but it certainly seems that constructing gingerbread houses became a popular activity among Germans right around the time the Grimms began publishing their bestsellers.

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By then, of course, gingerbread was already associated with Christmas. And nobody celebrates Christmas like the Germans, who pioneered everything from Christmas presents to Christmas trees to some of the most popular carols.

In the 19th century, many gingerbread house-making Germans, armed with their favorite holiday traditions, moved to the United States in multiple mass waves of immigrationThe opera “Hänsel and Gretel” by Engelbert Humperdinck, which premiered in Germany in 1893 and in the United States two years later, featured a gingerbread house that may also have increased the popularity of the confectionery construction.

By 1909, Good Housekeeping was suggesting that moms make a “Jack Horner pie” (the term was used as a catch-all for any pastry that had goodies inside) featuring a miniature gingerbread house for a Hansel and Gretel children’s party. And with each Christmas, more elaborate gingerbread creations could be found.

These days, gingerbread structures are so popular that many become tourist destinations, as in the case of a three-ton gingerbread village built each year by a New York chef. And next time you see one, you might want to remember its convoluted history—one that belies its sugar-sweet looks.

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25 Benefits of Adopting a Rescue Dog
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According to the ASPCA, 3.3 million dogs enter shelters each year in the United States. Although that number has gone down since 2011 (from 3.9 million) there are still millions of dogs waiting in shelters for a forever home. October is Adopt a Shelter Dog Month; here are 25 benefits of adopting a shelter dog.

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How Urban Legends Like 'The Licked Hand' Are Born
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If you compare the scary stories you heard as a kid with those of your friends—even those who grew up across the country from you—you’ll probably hear some familiar tales. Maybe you tried to summon Bloody Mary by chanting her name in front of the mirror three times in a dark bathroom. Maybe you learned never to wonder what’s under a woman’s neck ribbon. Maybe you heard the one about the girl who feels her dog lick her hand in the middle of the night, only to wake up to find him hanging dead from the shower nozzle, the words “humans can lick too” written on the wall in the dog’s blood.

These ubiquitous, spooky folk tales exist everywhere, and a lot of them take surprisingly similar forms. How does a single story like the one often called “Humans Can Lick Too” or "The Licked Hand" make its way into every slumber party in America? Thrillist recently investigated the question with a few experts, finding that most of these stories have very deep roots.

In the case of The Licked Hand, its origins go back more than a century. In the 1990s, Snopes found that a similar motif dates back to an Englishman’s diary entry from 1871. In it, the diary keeper, Dearman Birchall, retold a story he heard at a party of a man whose wife woke him up in the middle of the night, urging him to go investigate what sounded like burglars in their home. He told his wife that it was only the dog, reaching out his hand. He felt the dog lick his hand … but in the morning, all his valuables were gone: He had clearly been robbed.

A similar theme shows up in the short story “The Diary of Mr. Poynter,” published in 1919 by M.R. James. In it, a character dozes off in an armchair, and thinks that he is petting his dog. It turns out, it’s some kind of hairy human figure that he flees from. The story seems to have evolved from there into its presently popular form, picking up steam in the 1960s. As with any folk tale, its exact form changes depending on the teller: sometimes the main character is an old lady, other times it’s a young girl.

You’ll probably hear these stories in the context of happening to a “friend of a friend,” making you more likely to believe the tale. It practically happened to someone you know! Kind of! The setting, too, is probably somewhere nearby. It might be in your neighborhood, or down by the local railroad tracks.

Thrillist spoke to Dr. Joseph Stubbersfield, a researcher in the UK who studies urban legends, who says the kind of stories that spread widely contain both social information and emotional resonance. Meaning they contain a message—you never know who’s lurking in your house—and are evocative.

If something is super scary or gross, you want to share it. Stories tend to warn against something: A study of English-language urban legends circulating online found that most warned listeners about the hazards of life (poisonous plants, dangerous animals, dangerous humans) rather than any kind of opportunities. We like to warn each other of the dangers that could be lurking around every corner, which makes sense considering our proven propensity to focus on and learn from negative information. And yes, that means telling each other to watch out for who’s licking our hands in the middle of the night.

Just something to keep in mind as you eagerly await Jezebel’s annual scary story contest.

[h/t Thrillist]

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