Local Kids Get a Taste of Holiday History

Courtesy photo Safia Pigott, Abby Hayton, and Vivian, Daniel, and Evan Pell proudly show off their holiday spirit, as captured in their painstakingly decorated gingerbread houses.

Recently the news has been full of reports about terror and violence. The cause is often ethnic and religious differences. For a refreshing change of pace, here is some good news about our youth here in the East End of Alameda. 
For the last several months, a few local kids have been meeting in my kitchen to learn about different cultures and their culinary gifts to the world. Most of these kids have at least one foreign-born parent and come from different religious traditions. Fortunately, those differences seem to enhance, rather than detract from our experience. Our latest class was about Germany’s contributions to Christmas cheer.
Today most Americans, and American retailers in particular, associate both gingerbread houses and decorated evergreens with Christmas. But it was not always so! We have ancient German culture to thank for both of these traditions. 
In the dead of winter, the pagan Germans feared that the earth would never come back to life. But when all the other trees had lost their leaves and looked lifeless, the evergreen needles remained a vivid green, a symbol of fidelity and constancy! That’s what the original German lyrics of “O, Tannenbaum!” are all about! And that’s why Germans used to bring fir branches inside their homes as a reminder that nature was still alive. The green boughs brought hope that spring would come again. This custom morphed into the Christmas tree, aka Weihnachtsbaum!
The gingerbread house has its roots in Germany as well. Most people have heard of the old German folk tale about Hansel and Gretel. It was first written down in the early 1800s by a pair of brothers who were scholars of Germanic culture. The early editions of Grimms’ fairy tales included many that are still popular today, including: Snow White (Schneewittchen), Rapunzel, Rumpelstilstkin (Rumpelstilzchen), Cinderella (Aschenputtel) and Red Riding Hood (Rotkaeppchen). 
In the fairy tale, Hansel and Gretel’s family is dirt poor. To make matters worse, their kindly father has taken a second wife, the kids’ stepmother. Stepmom convinces her husband to leave his children in the middle of the woods. 
During the first attempt at abandonment, Hansel outsmarts his parents by leaving behind a trail of white pebbles to mark their way home in the moonlight. The description of how the stepmother feigns joy at the children’s unexpected return is particularly noteworthy! 
The second attempt to ditch the children goes according to the evil matriarch’s plan. She has thwarted Hansel’s countermeasure by locking the door at night, so he can’t sneak out to collect stones. 
The next morning, Hansel decides to crumble up his daily food ration, a small scrap of bread, and secretly sprinkle it on the ground as they walk along. The trail of crumbs is meant to do the same job that the pebbles did before. Unfortunately, hungry birds gobble it all up, leaving the children stranded in the wilderness (and Hansel very hungry!). 
Just as Hansel and Gretel are about to despair, they discover a full-size, edible house! What are the odds? The original version had walls of bread, a roof of cake, and windows made of sheer sugar. The starving children start nibbling, until the wicked witch emerges to lure them inside. This evil carnivore had built her delicious house just to attract victims like Hansel and Gretel, with tender young flesh. That may make her the most memorable cannibal in the history of children’s literature! 
How did the down-sized gingerbread house come to be a Christmas favorite? Germany has a long tradition of outdoor Christmas markets (let’s just say they aren’t weather wimps!). The most famous Weihnachtsmarkt is in Nuremberg. 
The markets typically feature home-baked treats, handmade tree ornaments and hand-carved wooden crafts. As edible craft projects, gingerbread houses made a perfect addition to the mix! Once the gingerbread house connection to Christmas was established, Americans embraced it whole-heartedly. 
As they have done for many years, local stores stock gingerbread house kits, complete with tubes of frosting and lots of brightly colored candies to use as decorations. The U.S. Postal Service has even gotten in the act, featuring four brightly decorated gingerbread houses in their annual holiday “Forever” stamp collection this year.
Here in Alameda, the East End is proud to continue the time-honored German crafting tradition for the holidays. Recently kids on Post Street gathered for a gingerbread house decorating party (after listening to a little lecture from their geeky hostess). The tasty works of art will be on display in their homes for the holiday season — at least until they get gobbled up, leaving behind a telltale trail of crumbs, perhaps! 
The ancient Germans would have been amazed to see these 21st-century island-dwellers decorating miniature versions of the evil witch’s edible house on a snow-white Corian slab! 
As they worked, the young East-Enders didn’t just share resources, take turns, and have fun. Something else happened, as the photo suggests: They discovered the true spirit of Christmas!