The Gingerbread Cottage
Famine in the land. A hard-hacked cottage. A simple woodcutter attends to the wife’s wishes: “Husband, there is food for only we two, so your children should be lent to the woods where they will be found and fed.” Overhearing, young Hansel gathers a wealth of white stones then calms his sister Gretel with the promise of “God will not forsake us”. Next morning, led away behind the woodcutter and stepmother, Hansel drops his white stones along the deep woods path. Here the children are left to fend. Then, Hansel leads Gretel back along the stone marked path to the cottage home front door.
Next day, again the children are led into the deep, dark, dangerous woods, and Hansel, poor in white stones, along the way drops crumbs from a scrap of bread. Hungry fowl peck the crumbs. Abandoned, the children are lost. Over long days Hansel and Gretel wander until sight of a beckoning white bird whom they follow to a cottage of gingerbread walls, cookie-laid roof, colorful candy decorations and windowpanes of clear cane sugar. Here, the famished children, confident of God’s providence, eagerly eat into the sweet cookie roof. In mid-bite, an old woman witch invites the delighted children into safety through the candied door.
The candied Gingerbread Cottage and the air-open Nativity manger, storied houses of the American home and our Christmas season, stories that offer two Old World lessons, two implications for new ways, two visions of family that show us to ourselves.
The candy-rich gingerbread cottage is a child’s delight, a tempting treat, fodder for the famished, a bright attraction not unlike the distraction-machines now kept in every young pocket and palm, machines that with sweet promises lure the unexpecting into empty engorgements. The storied family of the gingerbread cottage, of fractured parents and neglected children, is broken, hungry, lost, destructive of itself. Its mother, as now with one of four, a Medea … and she, the first mention in literature of “stepmother”. * The pretty, child-pleasing, table-centered gingerbread cottage is an annual fixture in many American homes, sweetly naïve, forgetful of the Germanic practice of cooking people.
The old woman witch encages Hansel in iron and fattens him for eating, as one will do with beef or chicken. The eager witch and reluctant Gretel warm the oven … why the old woman admitted to Gretel that she would eat her too, I cannot say. Dumb move. The witch instructs Gretel into the oven. Gretel feigns ignorant innocence, as girls will do. Often, a good move. The witch, leaning forward, demonstrates how to enter an oven and with a shove Gretel helps the witch through the oven door, closes it and secures the witch in the fire. The ungodly witch burns. The children flee.
The humble manager, home to donkey, oxen, chicken, and to a family dutiful to Roman law, faithful to God, loving one to the other. Together, this family will be true to itself in hardship and in hope. Good, true, beautiful. Father, mother, child. The Father protects the mother, the mother cradles the child who will grow in strength to offer himself, hero-savior whose virtue redeems our human family, a God humanly formed who will sacrifice himself to nourish our world.
At Christmastide the manger crèche invites nativity into the American home, year-upon-year serving as a steady, sturdy model for family, house, and home. However many children or relations, whether great palace or little apartment, the mangered Holy Family is the familial model common to we all, a mother true to child, a providing father, a natural family soul-filled, practicing virtue, purposed to divine ends.
In each particular the humble manger, wood simple, open-aired and partly roofed, embodies virtue in sacrifice, purpose in divine time, eternal plan. The gingerbread cottage, earthy in sours and sweets is a temporal vice soon eaten, soon forgotten. The Gingerbread model of home is not divinely guided, it is a happenstance of incidents mundane, inexplicable, magical and messy.
Hansel and Gretel discover precious stones in the witch’s gingerbread cottage, steal the stones away and the two children are brought over a lake on the back of a broad-winged swan, soon returned to the father’s hack-log house. The stepmother has died. The gingerbread family lives happily ever after in the topsy-turvy chances of the messy mundane everyday.
“Mary-Christ-Mass” Father Hathaway will say, with a reminder to keep Christmas decorations in the homey place-of-honor through Holy Family Solemnity until January 9 (2023), Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. There is wisdom in tradition, meaning in memory, and perhaps, divine purpose. The Grimms’ profane story and the Bible’s sacred story lead us to different endings along differing paths.
We are who we are by stories we tell of ourselves, by stories that tell of family, by our seasonal symbols of house and home. As you know, recently there is a fad in ret-con, “retroactive continuity”, a Marxist practice of replacing a true origin-story with a new origin-story that serves to justify a political ending, as in the 1619 Project which proposes a nation slave-based that by a corruption of Christian charity will distribute wealth by race, stealing from one to enrich another. And this retcon is the plot of each Hollywood DC Marvel property that homogenizes, that reorients, that sex and race swap characters to achieve a political orthodoxy serviceable to corporate, Democrat party interests.
At 66 years, I can recall a time when stories were humanely rather than politically true, when lessons encouraged virtue, discouraged envy. We all recognize the implications of the Manger and the Gingerbread Cottage, each a True story. The one of a family neglected, abandoned, desperate, alone, subjected to the vicissitudes we all suffer; the other, a family fortunate, faithful, hopeful, visited by bright-eyed shepherds and rich-robed magi, blessed as we all are by miracles often unnoticed. Epictetus would acknowledge that we each in our station practice virtue through suffering and blessing … the greater the suffering, the greater the hardship, the greater the virtue achieved in patience and in persistence.
Here, this Christmas season, all that’s left to do is to share with you Tiny-Tim’s faithful sentiment, “God bless us, every one.”
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* God love the stepmothers, good angels among us, hos epi to polu.
For more on the Storybook Houses of our American Tradition, see The Beautiful Home.
Featured image, Making a Gingerbread Cottage. credit: Fam Veld
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