Are Gingerbread Men, Uh, Cannibal Propaganda?

Some historians trace the holiday baked goods to the Saturnalia celebrations of ancient Rome.

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A very shuddersome season's greetings to you, my cool and creepy readers! Yule is upon us and, if you're anything like me, you've already decked your halls and scheduled a viewing of the original Black Christmas. Now, all that's left to do is devour an entire plate of cookies shaped like human dudes.

Bet you didn't think twice about that last sentence, did you? When I say "cookies shaped like human dudes," you probably think: "okay, gingerbread men." But my question is this: When did we decide that eating food shaped like a person was a normal, festive thing to do?

Turns out, gingerbread men have a fascinating, potentially grisly history that's much older than the original story of The Gingerbread Man. (You know the one; he dies a horrible death in a famous children's story.) There's even reason to believe that these sweet, spiced baked goods have roots in ancient cannibalism. Well, kind of. Time for a quick spin through the history books.


A cheery history of gingerbread

Before there were gingerbread men, there was plain ol' gingerbread. PBS cites Rhonda Massingham Hart's cookbook Making Gingerbread Houses, which explains that the first known recipe for gingerbread came from Greece in 2400 B.C., although ginger itself was first cultivated in Southern Asia and migrated via spice trades.


The spice became popular in central Europe around the 11th century after it was hauled inland by marauding Crusaders. As reported by The Spruce Eats, an early European recipe for gingerbread consisted of ground almonds, stale breadcrumbs, rosewater, sugar, and ginger. The ingredients were then ground into a paste and pressed into human likenesses, serving as edible pictographs depicting the events of the day.

Eventually, the recipe evolved to become a bit more palatable. TIME cites Carole Levin, director of the medieval studies program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln; Levin explains that Queen Elizabeth I was known for elaborate royal dinners that employed—get this—a royal gingerbread maker tasked with making cookies to "represent foreign dignitaries and people in her court." Now, that's 16th-century hospitality.


This is all very cheery, right? Not sinister at all. To get to the weird stuff, we have to go even further back.

A less cheery history of gingerbread

Last year, mystery novelist Maya Corrigan published a treatise on the "surprisingly dark" history of gingerbread. Corrigan's history hinges on Saturnalia, an ancient Roman pagan celebration held in mid-December to honor the agricultural god Saturn. "The decadent festivities included excessive drinking, eating, and carousing," Corrigan writes. "Celebrants gobbled down man-shaped biscuits representing the culminating event of Saturnalia—human sacrifice as a gift to appease the gods."


Quick note here: Saturnalia likely didn't actually involve human sacrifice. History reports that Saturnalia celebrations actually looked a lot like the modern-day holiday season, although they obviously didn't center on the infant Christ. Business came to a halt, people donned festive clothing, and halls were decked with greenery. As Corrigan writes, people also ate a ton—but those man-shaped biscuits may or may not have hearkened back to the days of casual human sacrifice. In reality, they represented the signillaria, small terracotta figurines that Romans gave their friends and loved ones on the last day of Saturnalia. And while legend has it that these figurines may have originated via much older celebrations involving human sacrifice, many historians find that claim dubious.


Whether or not signillaria cookies were inspired by human sacrifice, gingerbread retains its fair share of mysticism. Quartz reports that during Elizabethan times, some women baked and ate "gingerbread husbands" in hopes of snagging a beau. And of course, we all know what the Brothers Grimm did for gingerbread houses.

So, are gingerbread men actually crumbly bits of cannibalistic propaganda? Probably not. Still, we are entering the coldest, darkest time of year. Seems as good a time as any to gather 'round the fire and tell scary ghost stories.