Poor Hansel and Gretel! Abused in their home, abandoned in the forest, kidnapped by a witch who planned on eating them. Both tormented by the witch, who kept Hansel in a cage and forced Gretel to take him food to fatten him up.
This horrific story is often told to children and, in fact, the very first theatre experience I ever had was a touring pantomime of Hansel and Gretel. I must have been about 4 or 5.
Television hadn’t yet arrived in our Far North Queensland village, so it was an especially glamourous treat for my family to travel to the small town nearly to watch a matinee performance.
And as my first experience of the power of live theatre, it overwhelmed me. It wasn’t fun. It wasn’t entertaining. It was just terrifying, and I simply had no faith that any child could display the power of thought and action necessary to defeat an adult—as Gretel does, by shoving the witch into her own oven.
Now—decades later—I’m thinking of the role played by food in this story, collected by the Grimm Brothers and first published in 1812.
The story’s background is recognized as being a widespread European famine between 1315 and 1317.
Food was so scarce that desperate people ate animal turds, insects, reptiles, and other humans, including children. Sometimes the humans were already dead—dug-up corpses, executed criminals—but sometimes they were deliberately killed for food. Jamie Adair writes:
The Great Famine wasn’t as simple as merely three years of bad weather: rather it was a perfect storm of economic, social, logistical, and even moral collapse that started nearly seventy years earlier.
In a way, then, Hansel and Gretel were lucky that they were abandoned in the forest rather than treated as a food source.
But their own desperate hunger leads them into danger. They stumble upon an edible house. This is the folklore version from Grimms:
And when they approached the little house they saw that it was built of bread and covered with cakes, but that the windows were of clear sugar.
“We will set to work on that,” said Hansel, “and have a good meal. I will eat a bit of the roof, and you Gretel, can eat some of the window, it will taste sweet.”
Hansel reached up above, and broke off a little of the roof to try how it tasted, and Gretel leant against the window and nibbled at the panes. Then a soft voice cried from the parlor:
“Nibble, nibble, gnaw
who is nibbling at my little house?”
The children answered:
“The wind, the wind,
the heaven-born wind,”
and went on eating without disturbing themselves. Hansel, who liked the taste of the roof, tore down a great piece of it, and Gretel pushed out the whole of one round window-pane, sat down, and enjoyed herself with it.
Not only does their hunger expose them to physical danger; it also leads them into moral danger. After destroying someone’s house—ripping pieces off of the roof and breaking window panes—they compound their sins by lying and blaming the wind.
At this stage, the story can be seen as a parable about how physical disintegration can lead to moral collapse.
The witch responds with seeming kindness and affection:
The old woman, however, nodded her head, and said, “Oh, you dear children, who has brought you here? Do come in, and stay with me. No harm shall happen to you.”
She took them both by the hand, and led them into her little house. Then good food was set before them, milk and pancakes, with sugar, apples, and nuts. Afterwards two pretty little beds were covered with clean white linen, and Hansel and Gretel lay down in them, and thought they were in heaven.
Her hospitality is false, her intentions dishonorable: she intends to eat the children.
See what happens when children accept sweets from strangers?
But what intrigues me in this story, now that I’m all grown up, is:
- some internet sources say the Grimm’s witch house was always gingerbread, but the translation I found definitely says the house is bread, not gingerbread at all;
- as I see it and without proper research, the transformation of the bread house to one made of gingerbread apparently happened in German popular culture after the folk story was published;
- gingerbread, and consequently gingerbread houses, are associated with Christmas.
The spices that give gingerbread its characteristic warm, kitchen-filling aroma were, at one time, exorbitantly expensive, but gingerbread was sold at fairs throughout Europe during the Middle Ages. Nuremberg became the gingerbread capital, and its Christkindlmarkt (Christmas Market) displayed “the most beautiful gingerbread cakes in Europe”.
What fascinates me is how a gingerbread witch’s house changes the tone of the story. Children eating a house made of bread, a staple food—even if it has sugar windows—can be excused because they are desperately hungry; on the other hand, children scoffing a sweet, highly spiced gingerbread house just seem greedy. (And illustrations of the fairy tale from this same era—such as these by Arthur Rackham in 1909—show Hansel and Gretel as rosy-cheeked and chubby, not as the emaciated, dirty urchins they would have been in the first version!)
So the story’s meaning becomes less about starvation and more about the dangers of gluttony—about non-essential eating.
I agree that gingerbread is a perfect northern-hemisphere Christmas-time food. It can be made mid-winter; its ingredients—like the dried-fruit components of mince pies or Christmas cake—are available during those dark months. Christmas feasts—developed from pre-Christian midwinter festivals—are justifiable and welcome reprises from winter’s scarcity.
But the witch’s abode is a house of horror, and when recreated in gingerbread for Christmas, it raises associations that are decidedly not celebratory: child abandonment; moral corruption by food; warnings about gluttony; the witch’s pagan practices; and, of course, cannibalism.
Looking back, then, to my first experience of live theatre’s power with that scary Hansel and Gretel pantomime in a country hall, maybe I was an unsophisticated kid, unable to separate real from “pretend”.
Or perhaps what unsettled me was the echoes of those ancient horrors.
See these video clips on especially grand gingerbread houses: