Witch's cottage

What does the gingerbread or so-called witch's cottage have to do with Christmas? The answer is short and sweet - originally nothing. Presumably, the association with gingerbread and sweets in the wintertime has something to do with it. In the fairy tale 'Hansel and Grethel', first published by the Brothers Grimm in 1812, the witch's house is described as follows:

"[...] so they saw that the little house was built of bread and covered with cake; but the windows were of bright sugar. 'Let's get to it,' said Hansel, 'and have a blessed meal. I will eat a piece of the roof, Grethel, you can eat of the window, it tastes sweet.”[i]

So, the fairy tale had been known since the beginning of the 19th century, but the witch's cottage probably only became popular as a Christmas decoration in the 1880s. In an 1884 issue of the then popular magazine Fürs Haus, there are two instructions on how to make 'gingerbread houses' out of cardboard, gingerbread, sugar, almonds, sultanas, chocolate, biscuits and other sweets. The witch and Hansel and Gretel were made of small jointed or porcelain dolls.[ii] In an issue of the magazine Dies Blatt gehört der Hausfrau! published five years later in 1889, it said:

"Since I assume that some readers are not yet familiar with the cute little sugar houses, I would like to give a description of one at this point. The cardboard worker makes a little house out of thin white cardboard. In the back wall there are three window cut-outs, in the front wall 2 window cut-outs and a door in between [...]. The side walls each have a small window, which is placed high up. The chimney must not be missing on the roof." [iii]

The little house is then covered with sweets, biscuits, "home-baked, colourfully glazed or sugar-coated Christmas baked goods".

The image of the 'witch's house' became really popular through a fairy-tale opera that was first performed in Weimar at the Court Theatre on 23 December 1893. The fairy tale play 'Hansel and Gretel' by Adelheid Wette (1858-1916) with music by her brother Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921) took the German and Austrian stages by storm. The play was divided into three pictures: 'Daheim', 'Im Walde' and 'Das Knusperhäuschen'. Especially the stage decorations of the last picture were extensively discussed in numerous newspapers.

In the children's song 'Hänsel und Gretel verliefen sich im Wald' (Hansel and Gretel lost their way in the woods), first published in 1901, a connection is made between the gingerbread house and winter. The first stanza of the song reads:

"Hansel and Gretel got lost in the woods.
It was so dark and also so bitterly cold.
They came to a little house of gingerbread fine.
Who might the master of this little house be?"

There is no mention of winter in the original fairy tale. The connection is from the composer's imagination. The term 'Pfefferkuchen' (gingerbread) comes from the past when all foreign spices were still referred to by the umbrella term 'pepper'. At that time, all that was known was that 'pepper' had to be imported from far away countries, so it was all too understandable if all foreign spices were also simplified to be paraphrased as 'pepper'. The saying, when you want to get rid of someone, ‚Geh doch dahin, wo der Pfeffer wächst‘ (Go where the pepper grows) also has its origins here.

In other German descriptions, the Witch's cottage is also called the Lebkuchenhaus. By the way, the term Lebkuchen has nothing to do with life or the old term Laben. Lebkuchen comes from the Latin 'libum' and means something like flat cake or pancake. Since gingerbread has a very long shelf life, it is still eaten as a pastry, especially in winter. The combination of gingerbread, sweets and the winter season made it the perfect Christmas decoration next to the Christmas tree. You can spot it as a side decoration on numerous historical photos of Christmas trees.

The witch's cottage is available in many different variations as a Christmas decoration. There are, for example, Advent calendars, tin boxes for and under the Christmas tree, witch's cottages as stands for goose feather trees or as angels' bells, as blown glass ornaments, as wish lists or in various versions of coloured wafers.

On the left, a smokehouse probably from the 1950s. On the right, a tin money box advertised as a novelty in the 1913 catalogue of Felix Lasse, Leipzig, among others
Advent house as a witch's cottage made of embossed cardboard with 24 little doors. Suitable for candle lighting. Base plate approx. 22 cm x 17 cm.
From the construction set "The child as master builder of fairy tales" by Müller & Freyer, Ludwigsburg. 15 cardboard parts and sheet metal supports. Base plate approx. 24.5 cm x 39.5 cm. Offered in several catalogues in 1907.
Crispy little house made from interlocking parts. Walter Stock, Solingen. 1920s. Either the children or the witch can be seen from the surrounding figures.
Crispy little house "Hexenschlösschen" by Adrian & Stock, Solingen, around 1910
Witch's house by Zuckerbär from Nuremberg. Length of the base 7.5 cm. Embossed cardboard, cotton wool, mica, figures probably tragacanth.

[i] (Grimm, Gebrüder): Kinder und Hausmärchen gesammelt durch die Brüder Grimm, 7th. Ed., Göttingen 1857, p. 83.

[ii] L Letters to the editor on the subject: Das Pfefferkuchenhäuschen, in: Fürs Haus. Praktisches Wochenblatt für alle Hausfrauen, 3. Jg. (1884/85), Nr. 116, p. 96.

[iii] Ein Knusperhäuschen, in: Dies Blatt gehört der Hausfrau! Zeitschrift für die Angelegenheiten des Haushaltes. IV. Jg. (1889/90), Nr. 10, p. 154; Instructions on how to make a 'Knabberhäuschen' yourself can be found in: Fürs Haus. Praktisches Wochenblatt für alle Hausfrauen, Nr. 377 (21. Dezember 1889), VIII. Jg. (1889/90), p. 92